Shopping: The suparmarket at which he shops, offers 285 varieties of cookies, 75 brands of iced tea, 230 types of soups, 174 types of salad dressings and 40 different brands of toothpaste from which to choose.
Healthcare: It used to be that when you got sick you went to the doctor who told you what was wrong and what medicine to take. Today doctors are trained to give you “options”. Option A or option B. Option A has certain benefits and certain risks. Option B has these benefits and these risks. “Doc; which one should I choose?”. “You need to choose yourself, you’re the patient”.
Family Life: Back when most people tried to get married and have kids when the first opportunity presented itself, the only choice one had to make was: with whom? Today it’s not just whom do I want to marry but when? Before my career gets off the ground or after? What if I choose to push that decision off till after my career is doing OK but then I fall in love? More choices.
Work: Technology has enabled us to work every minute of every day from anywhere in the world so now we have to keep deciding whether or not we should be working at any given moment! We could be with a friend, spouse or significant other and the cell phone buzzes. Even if we choose not to pick it up we still have to decide whether to take the call or answer that email.
In the TEDxStanford talk, “Sometimes it’s good to give up the driver’s seat,” marketing professor Baba Shiv reveals that discomfort over making choices extends into medical decisions. Five years ago, Shiv’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Researchers Sheena Iyengar and Emir Kamenicar looked at the retirement savings choices made by half a million employees through the Vanguard Group. Analyzing the data, they found that for every 10 additional funds offered to an employee, the chances that an employee would invest in none of the above increased by 2.87%. Dr. Schwartz in his talk explains: “With 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow,” he says. “By not participating, they are passing up as much as $5,000 a year from the employer.”
Life and Death Decisions
It seems that when it comes to having options, less is more and this principle holds true when it comes to more serious life issues. In her Ted Talk “The Art of Choosing,” Iyengar tells of another study conducted on parents in both France and the United States faced with the horrible decision of whether to take their infant off of life support. In the United States, this decision rests on the parents. However, in France, this decision is made by medical professionals. Iyengar and her fellow researchers looked at how the parents felt a year after in both countries. They found that while American parents harbored hugely negative emotions about the experience, the French parents were more able to reframe the tragedy with statements like, “Noah was here for so little time, but he taught us so much.” Although the American parents felt strongly that they would not have wanted their doctors to make the decision, their experience with this challenging situation was in the end worse than their counterparts in France.
Mo’ money, mo’ problems
Schwartz mentions another favorite study conducted by David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University. In looking at market data, the two found that — even though the gross domestic product had doubled in the United States over a 30-year period — the proportion of the population describing themselves as “very happy” had declined by about 5 percent. When given far more choices 14 million Americans reported feeling less happy than their peers 30 years before.
The studies demonstrating this point are endless – but the message is clear. More options does not always equal more happiness. In fact, the most common results of all this “freedom” are paralysis and/or crippling doubt – a phenomenon I refer to as being “trapped in the wild.”
Considering the alternatives are stalling out, going the wrong direction over and over again, or crashing and regretting, consulting some kind of system like the Torah to help us make some of the more important choices isn’t such a radical or crazy religious thing to do. Not only does it help us make better decisions (especially if you believe Torah comes from a higher place), it takes some of the pressure off deciding so many important things for ourselves. The Torah is a tried and tested way to make choices and to pave a good path in life. It is a system that, regardless of where you believe it comes from, has maintained the Jewish Nation throughout centuries of persecution, and not only allowed us to survive, but to give back to the world in such a powerful and productive way.
And now I challenge you. Take note this week every time you are prompted to make a decision. Whether it’s something as mundane as brand of mustard to buy, or as important as what type of degree to get or to commit to someone you’ve been dating – take notice of how you make that decision. Do you consult a value system, a particular mentor, a philosophy, or are you completely on your own? Do you feel overwhelmed and stuck, or do you feel empowered and confident? Why? Just hold onto these answers, or share them below. We will continue to explore this topic in future blog posts.