I was 31 when I figured out breakfast, and after that life’s overall difficulty level declined a bit.
Every month I buy a bag of bulk steel-cut oats, a bag of trail mix and a six-pound bag of Royal Gala apples. Every morning I make a heaping half-cup of the oats and cut an apple into slices. About six months ago I added a cup of Ceylon tea to that.
That’s breakfast every day now. I used to keep my options open, figuring that going with what I “feel like” in the moment is going to naturally lead to a more appropriate, fulfilling breakfast experience.
After years of being confronted with a decision shortly after waking, I decided to be done with deciding what was for breakfast. My usual is now the only thing on the menu, and since I stopped deciding what’s for breakfast, mornings have had a significantly different feel. They are clearer and more spacious.
I thought my newfound clarity was a byproduct of having more whole grains in my diet, or the self-satisfaction of finding a breakfast that costs 11 cents. I now believe it has nothing to do with oatmeal at all, but rather with the fact that I have much more than 11 cents to spend on breakfast, and in today’s global food system that gives me way too many options.
As affluent Westerners we’re fortunate to have so many choices, but according to psychologist Barry Schwartz, having too many possibilities — which we do in almost every area: breakfast, clothing, careers, lifestyles and creative pursuits to name some major ones — makes it consistently harder to be happy with the options we choose. In his TED talk he identifies the ways too many choices erode personal welfare instead of serving it.
When we’re faced with a number of options, we’re always going to assume that one of them is better than all the rest. This means the more options there are, the more likely we are to choose one that isn’t the best one. We also presume it would take more homework to choose the right one. In other words, as options increase every decision becomes bigger, and so the more likely we are to delay our decisionmaking.
Facing any decision is to some degree stressful, whether it’s picking a menu item, or picking an investment vehicle for your retirement. Delaying decisions because you don’t want to make the wrong decision only compounds this stress. This trepidation is a fear of future regret, and the resulting paralysis can lead to procrastination, which in turn leads to self-esteem issues, which only compounds indecisiveness further.
Even once you make a decision, the more options you turned down the more likely you have lingering doubts that you missed the boat — or at least, some boat. Even if you make the best choice, you never really know that, and you’re likely to wonder what you’re missing.
If you went to a restaurant that only serves one thing, if it’s decent food at all, you’re much more likely to enjoy it because you know that among your options, there was no greener grass to be had.
With an increasing number of options in almost every aspect of life, we presume that our results in each of those areas should be getting better and better, because with each new possibility it becomes more likely that one of them suits us perfectly. Our expectations for perfection and total satisfaction are too high.
As freedom of choice grows, the perfect career, the perfect partner, the perfect schedule or the perfect salad dressing seem more likely to happen. Perhaps they are, but psychologically we’re less likely to be pleased with whatever we do choose, because our satisfaction with what we have shrinks as the number of things we don’t have — or could have — grows.
Schwartz on going shopping in a modern store:
“I had very low expectations when they only came in one flavor, and when they came in a hundred flavors… dammit one of them better be perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing. [...] Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be, and what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with the results, even when they’re good results.”
The other day at work, I became momentarily obsessed with the idea of finding how true North related to the road I was surveying. I pulled out my Android and downloaded what was rated as the best of the thirty or so compass apps. Within a half-minute I had it up and running, but the digital needle was pointing back to the city, which I knew was roughly south-east. I clicked through the settings and couldn’t get the damn thing to work right.
After a few minutes of frustration, I realized how ridiculous a moment it was, given the entire history of human struggle: a young man, out in a field somewhere, had become visibly annoyed that he couldn’t procure a reliable compass in 30 seconds.
As stupid as that story is looking back on it, my annoyance was definitely real and was definitely affecting the quality of my life in that moment. It’s an example of the truly ridiculous expectations that arise in a world with truly ridiculous levels of convenience and personal power. I wish it was unusually ridiculous.
Our options are probably going to continue to increase for a long time. You have, in most areas of life, a tremendous number of possibilities, and generally, the more there are the less happy you’ll be with that area of life whenever you consider what you don’t have. If the career, partner, creative outlet or meal you currently have were the only one that had been available to you, you’d probably feel extremely lucky that you had it.
Although I didn’t always know why, I know that the more I simplify my life, in terms of its moment-to-moment options, the happier I am. Owning fewer things made me immediately calmer and more grateful. Having an inflexible regular day for starting my weekly article drastically reduced my anxiety around writing. Cutting my monetary spending (almost) down to the essentials gave me an immediate sense of control and abundance I never had before. I also suddenly have more money than ever — the side-effects of voluntary simplification tend to be wonderful and freeing, at least when you’ve been living the Western consumer status quo your whole life.
The reason behind these breakthroughs, I see now, is the same. Each one reduced the number of decision points in my life. Every time I reduce the number of decisions I have to make just to move my life along, everything gets less difficult and I feel better about my direction. It becomes easier to be grateful and to get myself to do what is most important to me.
The minimalist movement isn’t frivolous or snobby, they’re on to something significant. Voluntarily having less, and less to choose from, delivers real dividends on happiness, particularly when it comes to its ability to reduce daily decisionmaking and the stress points that go with it.
I can’t believe I never noticed this pattern, but I will be taking full advantage now. An Elaine St. James book recently enlightened me to the idea of simplifying meals, making it obvious why my oatmeal, of all things, made my life better. Having well-planned “usuals” at home — two or three healthy options at most — reduces the daily burden of mealtime decisionmaking, the weekly burden of grocery-store decisionmaking, and reduces the amount of time we spend preparing meals, which is something that happens three times every day. This represents a lot of mental sticking points removed from life.
The options at mealtime are a microcosm of the lifestyle options available to the ordinary, free Western citizen. We have never been freer to live how we want to live, which is wonderful and empowering but simultaneously taxing and intimidating. I want to take advantage of the freedoms provided by the incredible time we live in without getting paralyzed by too many options and endless unmade decisions.
The best approach seems to be to give ample deliberation to the decisions that concern major aspects of life, such as career, family, relationships, high-level goals and creative pursuits, and don’t let small ones hang you up. The big ones determine what you actually do with your life — and it is their doing that contributes most to happiness, so it’s worth pruning out as many of the distracting minor decisions as possible so that you don’t cease the important doing because you’re caught up in unimportant thinking.
Technology and commerce produce so many minor decision points for the typical person that you have to be careful not to let yourself become convinced that any meaningful amount of happiness hinges on them. Nothing produces a steadier supply of these needless, distracting desires than television.
Happiness comes from the major things, and although our 21st-century freedoms give us a lot of minor preoccupations, they do give us more personal power to get those major things right.
I find the more I can see my possessions and options as luxuries, the more grateful I am to end up with any of them. When we think of all non-necessities as luxuries, it feels ridiculous to stress over the outcome of minor decisions. From now on, all salad dressings are luxuries. All cell phone features are luxuries. If it’s not a basic need, it’s icing. You can still make decisions about icing, but icing should not stress you out, and any icing-related details you can eliminate from you regular decisionmaking responsibilities, the better.
Now I’m suddenly considering going to the store to buy some cake frosting. This is why I don’t have a TV.