We are living in a time of more choice than ever before. Not only can we order pretty much anything online, we are free to marry whoever we want whenever we choose, we can pursue whatever career we like almost anywhere in the world, and we can change our minds about it all later. The Internet has placed a near infinite amount of possibilities at our fingertips.
As wonderful as all this choice and freedom is, its price is a degree of anxiety. In his book Modern Love, Aziz Ansari points out, “That's the thing about the Internet: it doesn't simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it. And in turn there are a whole bunch of inferior things that we'd be foolish to choose.” We are more free to shape our lives on our own terms—and make mistakes—than ever before.
As much as we like the idea of infinite choice and freedom, humans have limitations. With around seven choices, Sheena Iyengar has found in her research, it’s easy to see which choice is the right one and to feel confident that we chose correctly. No looking back. More than seven choices, though, paralyzes us: “We have mental, emotional, and physical limits to the number of options we can handle,” Iyengar writes in her book The Art of Choice, “and when we can't tell one option apart from another, choice becomes a meaningless and/or impossible exercise. We end up putting off decisions, even very important ones, we make poorer choices, and we're less satisfied with the choices we do make.”
Choice is also sometimes an exercise in identity. We want to choose the thing that will be accepted and approved by the people around us, and it can be challenging to tell the difference between what we really want and what we think we should want. “Our lifestyle choices often reveal our values, or at least what we'd like people to perceive as our values,” Iyengar writes.
In a world of too much freedom, it’s all to easy to let your partner, parents, or tradition make your decisions for you. Besides, if something goes wrong, you can blame those others rather than taking responsibility for your actions. Standing firm in what you truly want can be terrifying and deeply vulnerable, especially if it’s not the choice that’s expected from your family or society.
There’s no guarantee any particular choice is the “right” one. Really, there is no right or wrong; every action simply has consequences, some of which will be negative and some of which will be positive, and most of which are unpredictable.
The best we can do is make our own choices. Standing firm in a decision you know was really yours means the negative consequences, if they come, are also really yours. You have the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and take responsibility for them, which, while uncomfortable, can also be deeply empowering. It’s hard to learn from the mistakes someone else made for you.
This is one reason we need a contemplative practice. Whether it’s yoga, meditation, journaling, or taking long walks, we need space to mull over our choices, think about them carefully, and feel them in our bodies. This way, we can mindfully decide what to bind ourselves to on our own terms. Whatever happens next, you’ll know that the choice was really yours, and so will be the consequences.