Paradox of modern life: so many choices, so little joy

Too much freedom causes analysis paralysis. That’s why Chipotle is successful, workaholics are happy, and retirement can be such a letdown.

As a person who manages creatives at an ad agency, I'm in a constant battle to provide my teams with the right amount of input. Too much information is paralyzing. But surprisingly, too much freedom is even worse. Give a creative team the world of potato chips to explore, and they freeze. Give them the word "crunchy" and watch them go. Creatives think they hate boxes, but it's in boxes that the creative process thrives.

And not just boxes: really small boxes. I use a technique you might call "Making the problem harder." I tell teams working on print ads to start by creating a billboard. If you have a TV campaign with a $300,000 production budget, try solving the problem for $10,000. Or do the whole spot only using type and sound effects.

Too much freedom can be bad for creatives, but there's significant evidence that it makes regular folks unhappy, too. I've long been fascinated by the arguments put forth by Barry Schwartz in "The Paradox of Choice." He says that when people have too many choices, especially in small matters, they freeze. And when they do choose, they're often left with buyer's remorse, convinced they missed a better opportunity.

It's not as counterintuitive as it sounds. The theory explains why you might be avoiding the smoothie place down the street with 98 flavors, not including the add-ons and power boosts. And in part why Chipotle is so successful. They present a limited range of options that makes choosing easy – just enough variation to make you feel it's your burrito but not so many that your head explodes.

But can the paradox of choice tell us something about the big issues in our lives? I think so.

Let me give you an example. My wife and I have five kids, which means that we spent the better part of 20 years with very limited choices in our personal lives. We were simply too busy to join book clubs, take glass-blowing classes, or even stay late at the office. Then our last kid went to college, and we weren't as happy with all that freedom as we expected to be. We missed the structure that our kids' schedules provided. Empty Nest Syndrome? Maybe Unlimited Choice Syndrome is a better name.

I suspect the paradox of choice also explains why so many people are disappointed with retirement. There's no structure for choices. (In design, this is called choice architecture.) And conversely, the paradox of choice also explains why so many of the workaholics I know seem so happy. They have fewer choices to make. They don't have to pick which TV show to watch because they're returning e-mail. Their lives are focused and purpose-driven – which is a big part of what makes humans happy.

The truth is most of us hate it when the world is our oyster. Exhibit A: recent liberal arts grads, who don't know what they want to do with their lives. We've provided them with such poor choice architecture – telling them they could do anything – that they can't seem to imagine themselves doing anything but working at Starbucks.

We humans are so complicated. Give us too little freedom and we'll stand up to dictators in Cairo and fighter planes in Libya. Give us too much freedom (and too many channels), and we'll sit in front of the TV, mindlessly flipping through our options, watching nothing.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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