One of my favourite books of last year was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I was in a bookshop yesterday and saw the paperback and it brought to mind the central theme of the book, which is beautifully encapsulated in a review by Philips Delves Broughton:
‘…This is the key theme of the book, and the reason for the title. We pampered creatures of the 21st century are ruined by our own freedom. Instead of bringing us happiness, it brings us only uncertainty. Having eschewed the certainties and disciplines of earlier generations, we find ourselves lost and adrift, propelled by the lingering emotions of childhood into futile searches for meaning.’
Questioning freedom has become quite fashionable of late. But it’s the questioning of choice that interests me: the freedom and number of choices that we have, how we make them and the impact they have upon us. Can you have too much choice? Of course you can. More and more research is illustrating that, far from bringing us happiness and satisfaction, too much choice, too many options, can bring us deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction. It can depress us and even paralyse us. Faced with too many choices – we make none. Or in a panic to make what we think is the “right” one our mind becomes clouded and we choose poorly. When it comes to a spot of retail therapy poor choices no longer have the consequences they once did – you can pretty much return anything you want and make another choice or you can get a refund. The risk is negated. But there are many, many choices that we make in life for which there is no return policy. The paths we take, even though they may seem insignificant at the time, can have an indelible impact upon who we are and what we might become. Pretty obvious stuff really.
We tell ourselves stories
But what part does the culture in which we are brought up play in the choices we make? Or even how we come to approach and view them? Can examining how different cultures and people make their own and collective choices bring us greater wisdom and understanding? Well, yes – of course.
In her essay, The White Album, Joan Didion writes:
‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience’.
This passage forms a core part of a TED talk given by Pyscho-economist, Sheena Lyengar called: The Art of Choosing. It’s an outstanding and insightful talk about the choices we make – both the trivial and the deeply profound and how we feel about them. Toward the end of the talk she says:
“No matter where we’re from and what your narrative is, we all have a responsibility to open ourselves up to a wider array of what choice can do, and what it can represent. And this does not lead to a paralyzing moral relativism. Rather, it teaches us when and how to act. It brings us that much closer to realizing the full potential of choice, to inspiring the hope and achieving the freedom that choice promises but doesn’t always deliver…”
As expectations of ourselves, each other and the world around us get ever higher – often reaching levels that are simply unachievable and unattainable, which leads only to disappointment, disillusion and, in the case of many relationships, to dissolution – it’s worth remembering that the freedom of choice can become a tyranny. Sometimes less really is more…