I know the simpleminded would say: What is the problem? Aren’t you lucky that you had ninety choices of cereal instead of nine? I didn’t feel lucky at all to have ninety choices. I am the kind of person who prefers the simplicity of a choice between two alternatives, at most an array of four choices. My first reaction to a choice of ninety options is one of sheer confusion. It would take me too long to read all the labels, let alone decide which I find the most attractive. How do I know how one tastes and what health properties it has? Ninety choices almost call for a research project.
When our daughters were young, I remember Jane, my wife, used to go overboard in buying Christmas gifts for them. Perhaps because she enjoyed shopping or was trying to make up unconsciously for spending long hours away from them thanks to our diplomatic jobs. Come Christmas, the children would open the first three gifts with great aplomb, the next two with visibly less enthusiasm, and the following ones just dutifully, as if performing school homework. Our friends who imagine our life in plush capitals of affluent countries as a cakewalk through opulent markets will never imagine my distaste for the endless variety of merchandise and the breathless chore of selection.
Am I exaggerating? Or looking in the mouth the gift horse of infinite choice?
Think for a second: the human mind is not like a computer; it cannot deal with a vast number of variables. If you must choose between two things, you can pretty well compare their relative merits and demerits. If I raise the number from two to four or five, the choice becomes far more complex. If you are buying refrigerators, you must compare their size, capacity, compartments, power consumption, price, guarantee and delivery expense. It gets more complicated if you are prepared to compromise on size provided you get a discount on the price, or ready to raise the price if the supplier delivers at short notice – and open to negotiate on both price and delivery if you get generous credit terms.
Think for another few seconds. Your problem does not end with the purchase. After you have bought the refrigerator and experienced a problem after three or six months – problems always arise – your wife will tell you that you should have listened to her and bought another brand that her sister had said was better. If you have the windfall of a compliant, uncomplaining wife, you will find while talking to a colleague that you could have bought the identical refrigerator from another source at double the discount and feel miserable about your gullibility. You may even find in the newspaper the next day the sale of a revolutionary new sixth type of refrigerator no respectable human should live without!
Psychologists talk of ‘buyers’ remorse’ and cite the antiromantic example of the groom who marries the girl of his dreams and, after a month’s honeymoon, frets that she rather belongs to his nightmares. Amid the thousand hassles of life today, at work, at home and in your head, if you set yourself up to choose between dozens of options, whether buying a car or a shirt, you are taking a shortcut to the dismal valley of buyers’ regret.
As I see it, the key to happiness in matters of choice lies in three simple steps. First, prepare your mind that whatever choice you make, it will never, ever be ideal. You will not know some things and you will overlook some others. Your choice can only be a reasonable approximation of the ideal.
Second, reduce the choice to a reasonable number, two or three, after quickly scanning the rest of the options. Assess them the best way you can, basically focusing on the main aspects that matter to you, and then try to cut the best deal.
Finally, once you have made your choice, shut out the curious colleague’s counsel and the know-all neighbor’s opinion. Nothing is perfect and you don’t need an interminable review of your judgment.
Your happiness trumps the need for a perfect choice.