Minimalism and the Paradox of Choice

Too many choices?We often think that the freedom to choose is the ultimate luxury and that the more choices we have, the better.

The reality is that, beyond a certain level of freedom to choose, we actually are happier when we have some limits to our choices.

I find this to be true with minimalism in general and both veganism and the black dress challenge in particular.

By setting rules for myself, my life is greatly simplified. For instance, when I go grocery shopping, I don’t have to agonize over whether the free-range organic lean chicken or the organic low-fat cottage cheese is a better choice. Because the answer is: neither.

By eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet, I automatically limit the majority of unhealthy food choices. This allows me to choose healthy fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts without having an internal dialogue about the pros and cons of each item I put into my shopping basket.

Similarly, when I wore the same dress every day for a month, my mornings were streamlined and I could get on to other, more interesting, aspects of my day.

These ideas are examined in a book I recently read, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, by Barry Schwartz. Schwartz contends that we make a mistake when we equate liberty directly with choice. We do not increase freedom by increasing the number of options available. Rather,

we make the most of our freedoms by learning to make good choices about the things that matter, while at the same time unburdening ourselves from too much concern about the things that don’t.

In other words, we free our minds from the tyranny of small decisions and have time to consider the big things in greater depth.

I think the mistake many people make is to assume that by giving things up, they will feel deprived. I believe the opposite to be true. For example, when I counsel people on making plant-based dietary choices, I emphasize that there may be some initial discomfort in giving up meat, poultry, fish, and dairy. But after a few days or weeks, the initial discomfort is replaced by a heightened feeling of health and well-being.

In other words, limits are not the same as deprivations.

How about you? Does setting limits in your life leave you more time to attend to things you really care about?

image source: iStockphoto

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14 Responses to Minimalism and the Paradox of Choice

  1. Oh yes, too many decisions/choices, set me on overwhelm. I’ve simplified my life in many ways physically (downsizing and shedding furniture and much of what was in storage) but there are many more aspects of it that could be looked at to bring greater emotional freedom. Thank you for this…it’s really given me something to think about.

  2. Avatar Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Hi Christianna,
    This is a great topic. I never really thought much about it before. I see now how bogged down my life can be by spending so much time on choices that I don’t even benefit from. Thanks for the thought provoking post!!

  3. Kate, I know what you mean about decision overwhelm! Good for you for making those positive changes in simplifying your life.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting πŸ™‚

    Christianna

  4. Hi reflective self β€”

    Getting bogged down is an accurate description of the effect of too many choices facing us every day. Especially choices about things that don’t ultimately add to our happiness in any significant way…

    Thanks for visiting and sharing your comment πŸ™‚

    Christianna

  5. I think I have known this for many years and seen the truth of how much better it is to limit your choices. Every area of my life is happier when I choose the limits. I choose to limit my spending=I don’t worry as much about finances; I choose to limit my clothing choices=mornings are much more stress free; I choose to focus my food choices on what is healthy=a healthier body (duh). Even in relationships such as marriage where one is to ‘forsake all others’, we find a deep fulfilling relationship withe our soulmate. There are so many examples of the benefits of choosing our limits.
    I never thought I could quit eating dairy products. But when I did, the immediate benefit of losing one or two lbs a week has kept me motivated to look for other health benefits to eating a vegan diet.

  6. I remember when we English students arrived in the USA for the first time back in the 1980s – we had never seen so much choice of brand for every single item one might want. Far from excited, we felt absolutely paralysed – where to start? How to choose? Might it be the wrong choice? etc etc. How many makes of chewing gum does anyone need??? Also, when in the restaurants – the menu, the choice, the sheer number of questions asked by the server – it was all so exhausting!!! We longed to say – just bring us a coffee πŸ™‚

  7. Hi Willow β€” You are so right in your descriptions of how this principle applies to all areas of one’s life.

    And congrats on giving up dairy! I know that’s a big hurdle for many people adopting a plant-based diet (it was definitely my biggest hurdle), and I am glad to know it’s working out so well for you!

    πŸ™‚ Christianna

  8. Hey Anna,

    You hit the nail on the head by describing too many choices as both paralyzing and exhausting! I love seeing USA craziness through an English student’s eyes. Thank you so much for sharing!

    πŸ™‚
    Christianna

  9. Avatar hopeinbrazil
    hopeinbrazil says:

    My husband and I are Americans living in Brazil where choice is often very limited. When we return to the U.S. we are overwhelmed with zillions of options. It’s easier to live and shop more simply when there are only 10 types of cereal and 10 types of soft drinks. Just because we have less choices doesn’t mean we are deprived in any way. Brazilian food is quite delicious and much more healthy than American fare.

  10. Hi hopeinbrazil β€” your wonderful example clearly shows that limitation is not the same as deprivation.

    I am glad to know that Brazilian food is so nutritious and delicious. Is there is a traditional dish of some combination of rice and beans and vegetables? When I visited Costa Rica a few years ago, I was happy that, as a vegetarian, I was always able to get some variation of the typical plate of black beans, rice, fried plantain, corn tortilla and veggies. It was delicious!

    Thanks for dropping by and commenting πŸ™‚

    Christianna

  11. The same thing happened to us after spending several years living in an Asian country. When we walked in to the grocery store for the first time, we just turned around and walked back out again. There were so many choices we were paralyzed.

  12. Excellent post. Thanks.

  13. Avatar Saketh Nath
    Saketh Nath says:

    Accidentally saw your site while searching for free downloads about Erich From and read this article.As a middleaged guy who saw enough ups and downs in life , I just have to agree to the dictat of being a minimalist. Life beckons in many ways for minimalists and lets not sweat the small stuff. Thank you for writing a beautiful article.
    Regards
    Saketh

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