I recently heard a story that proved to be quite revelatory with respect to what I deem to be a distinctly modern spiritual malady. The story, as it was told to me, involved a study by a research group. Two different groups of kids were taken out to get ice cream by a researcher. The first group was presented with only two options while the second group was presented with two-dozen different flavors. As might be obviously deduced, the second group in the test struggled far more to make a decision about an ice cream flavor than the first. More options made the decision more difficult. However, in my opinion, what is more fascinatingly, is that when asked to rate their happiness with respect to their choice of ice cream, the first test group (the one who was only given the choice between two flavors) rated their contentment with their decision at significantly higher marks.
At first glance, this discovery seems counter intuitive. Shouldn’t more choices give the kids a chance to find a flavor they really want? Upon further reflection though, I’m not surprised by the researcher’s findings at all. I used to be a lot more content with my movie rental decisions when I could walk out of Blockbuster with a copy of Tommy Boy and leave all of the other movies behind. Now, choosing a movie on Netflix between my wife and I is a marathon affair and usually ends with a resigned, “Sure, let’s just watch that one.” Meanwhile, every movie I didn’t choose remains only a click away.
How this ends up affecting relationships has become a hot topic of conversation in many circles. Increasingly, we are seeing people prolong singlehood because they fear the “constraints” of marriage, and then, once married, often prolong the “burden” of children. Much could be said about this topic, but I’ll just touch on one thing before I continue on to the area I really want to discuss. It is only in focusing our love, in tethering it toward a specific goal (or rather, person) that our lives and love discover their true purpose and potential. Man finds himself in a sincere gift of self.
This glut of constant choices and decisions can create an endemic restlessness. Strangely though, this “as-many-choices-as-possible” dynamic, responsible for the discontentment and restlessness so often at work in our hearts, is still approached by many as a good thing. “Keeping your options” open is highly valued; sometimes it can be difficult to see a door in our lives closing, not even because we wanted to walk through it, but just because it’s closing. It seems more comfortable to remain at the level of constant evaluation of the options, never having to enter into the discomfort of choosing.
Although the restlessness of choice is most damaging to romantic relationships, I think it’s important to reflect on how this dynamic plays out in our work/professional lives as well. I watch as the high school juniors I teach reach near anxiety-attack levels over their decision of which college to attend and what major to declare in anticipation of the career which will define so much of their future. In the face of the thousands of options, limiting your scope at age eighteen seems understandably impossible to them.
Once in the workforce, being on an almost constant job hunt has become common practice for those among the (albeit unfairly) much-maligned millennial generation. (Note: I totally would say it’s unfair because that’s such a millennial thing to do). While I think overall critiques on millennials are an overblown and overly discussed element in public discourse, I do think as a generation we’re selling ourselves short by constantly keeping our peripheral vision on other opportunities. Even if unintended, this limits our ability to be fully present and fully invested. Creating real and lasting change in organizations and the world at large requires a persistence that just isn’t possible as long as we continue to constantly be on the lookout for other opportunities. It may be that constraining our options, at least for a time, and focusing on the job at hand, allows us to find avenues for our talents and energy in a particular job or situation that we didn’t think existed.
The antidotes to such a spiritual malady are gratitude and allowing oneself to be content. Viewing a situation (even a difficult one), emphasizes the value at-hand instead of a perceived and imaginary value somewhere else. It’s almost like when you were a kid and the best way to have the best bike in class was to just convince everyone else that your bike was, in fact, the one that everyone needed to have. Set the trend. We need to stop looking at other people’s life situations and thinking that theirs is somehow better. After all, comparison is the thief of joy. Instead, why not convince everyone else, in a humble and grateful way, that your bike is actually the best.