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Jam or Marmalade? The power choice and freedom on our happiness

We talk a lot about freedom being fundamental for happiness. Without it, it can be difficult to imagine long-lasting happiness. But is there such a thing as too much freedom? To the extent, it ends up with negative outcomes. 

Humans did not evolve in environments laden with choice. Instead of a seemingly unlimited supply of would be suitors on a dating app they had those 20 or 30 people in their tribe or village. Nowadays when looking for, well almost anything it can become overwhelming because of the sheer amount of choices you’re presented with. 

You would think that more choice means we can choose just the right movie for our exact mood, we can pick something that matches our feel good Sunday evening vibe. But then you spend 40 minutes searching and then another 1 hour and 30 minutes wishing you had picked something with Tom Hanks. You go to make a peanut butter and jam crumpet because you’re reluctant to become completely Americanised. Only to be presented with 24 different types of jam in your local supermarket. Here you feel dejected do you go gooseberry, kiwi, plum?!?! Or just bail entirely and resort to a claggy crumpet. 

Well, researchers looked at this exact scenario, more or less, in a study that was the first to point out the adverse effects of choice which went on to create an entire of research and be cited nearly 6,000 times at the time of writing. 

The Jam Experiment. Shoppers at an upscale grocery store encountered two different tasting booths: one offered a selection of 6 different jams, while the other presented 24 varieties. Intriguingly, although the larger display attracted more initial interest, it was the smaller selection that led to more purchases—30% of those who sampled from the 6-jam booth bought a jar, compared to only 3% from the 24-jam booth. This study illustrates how offering fewer choices can actually help guide decision-making suggesting that more options may lead to decision paralysis rather than liberation.

“The culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction” - Barry Schwartz 

This particularly resonated with me. I think it's so easy to have FOMO with the options we are presented with and also fall into a trap of regretting the path not taken because unfortunately we cannot A/B test life and we would never know what the other fork in the road would have led to. This ‘What if’ sensation could be robbing us of joy and satisfaction according to the research and Barry himself. 

There is a tension here because optimising for freedom we are told should lead to happiness. You have the choice of how you spend your time, how you earn your money, and where you live. Which, I think on a macro level all massively contribute to your overall sense of happiness because of the interplay with the other three fundamental pillars of happiness, health, wealth and relationships. 

What is needed is a system to ensure that when you’ve successfully optimised for freedom and you have more to choose from, you’re not overwhelmed. Journaling is ours. What’s yours?

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