Choice and Anxiety

About six years ago I moved from Utah to Seattle. Our apartment complex sat next to a large outdoor mall that included a grocery store.  I discovered that I could easily walk out the back door of my apartment and get to the store in less than five minutes, so I bought a wire grocery cart and spent the next two years shopping exclusively at one grocery store (supplemented occasionally by trips to Costco about twenty minutes away). I’m sure there were nearby stores with lower prices, but for me the convenience of shopping in one place, especially a store that offered child care while you shop, was worth limiting my options. Each week I would peruse the sale flyer for the cheapest foods and plan my menu around them, sometimes stocking up if things happened to be particularly cheap.

After Seattle we moved to a small town in Northern California. Again I found it easier to shop at just one grocery store once I found one that combined my ideals of convenience, price, and quality of foods. After a few months of living in California we decided to sign up for produce delivery from a local organic farm. Again, the trade-off of limited options came with the benefit of convenience and quality. Most of the time I loved planning my meals around the delightful surprise of whatever happened to show up on my doorstep that week (except for a particular week in January when we received spinach, kale, collard greens, chard, and mustard greens all at once).

Then, after slightly less than a year in California we moved back to Utah. One of the reasons why we picked our neighborhood is the fact that it is centrally located and close to shopping, work, and entertainment.  I live within a 10-minute drive of six different grocery stores, Super Target, Super Walmart, Costco, and two natural foods stores. Oh, and several farms around here sell fresh produce all summer. I also discovered couponing websites that described various store sales and coupons you could use with them in order to maximize my bargain shopping. At first all this selection was great—I loved having so many choices in my shopping and so many ways to save money. Then, after a while, shopping started to stress me out. Each week I had to decide where I was going to spend my time and money. Should I go to Smiths to take advantage of the great sale on cereal? Or should I swing by Costco to get the milk and bread because they have the best price? I probably should go to Target because I need to get my son new underwear, and their price on milk is good. But, none of these stores has good produce so I should swing by Sprouts and get some fruits and veggies. But then I also need to go to Winco to get some more oatmeal from the bulk bins. I will admit that I’ve had too many weeks shopping like a chicken with its head cut off trying to get the best deal and the best quality without missing out.

Problems like having too many grocery stores to shop at are often dismissed as ‘first-world problems’, and in fact they are. I’m grateful I have so much food available to me, a car to go get it with, and money to buy it. However, phenomena like ‘decision fatigue’ and ‘choice overload’ are real issues that are being studied by social scientists and psychologists, who have found that having too many choices can cause just as much unhappiness as having too few of them.  In his book The Paradox of Choice, author Barry Schwartz argues that our current Western culture contributes to dissatisfaction by offering us myriad options in most aspects of our lives, from the mundane to the momentous, and then by placing pressure on us to celebrate our freedom and confirm our identity by making the ‘right’ choice for our needs thousands of times on a daily basis. When we have so many choices to make it can be too easy to constantly feel like we are missing out on something better.

I always feel choice anxiety when Christmas time rolls around each year. First I have to decide on gifts—I would love to buy my children so many fun things, but for the sake of my budget and the sake of their personal development I have to set limits. Perusing catalogs gives me pangs when I see all the things that would make their faces light up on Christmas morning, while knowing I can only choose one. Even worse are the blog posts, status updates, and Christmas letters I receive from friends and family. So many good things we could do as a family! What would best help my children feel the Christmas spirit? Should we do a Secret Santa project? Volunteer at the homeless shelter or food bank? Send gifts to the military overseas? Buy farm animals for children in Africa? Go to a Christmas concert? The ballet? A tree lighting ceremony? Festival of Trees? Elf on a Shelf? Advent calendar? Make cookies for our neighbors? Make or buy gifts for Grandma and Grandpa? Send Christmas letters? Teacher gifts? Even when I choose a few good things that I know are right for my family, it is so easy to only see the 1,000 good things we could be doing instead of the 4 or 5 we are doing. This year I have resolved to remember that I can’t do everything, I don’t have to do everything, and I don’t want to do everything. And, the choices I make for what we do as a family may or may not be the same as another person’s but that doesn’t mean they are the wrong one. I also know I’m going to go see Les Miserables on Christmas afternoon—that’s one choice that I know I won’t regret.

How do you feel about the level of choice you have in your life? Does making choices stress you out? How do you decide when and where to spend your time during the holidays?

About Jessie

(Blog Team) served a mission in Spain and graduated from BYU with bachelor's degrees in Spanish Translation and English, as well as a master's in Spanish Literature. She works full-time at a university library and full-time as a mother to her three children and their two cats. When she has free time she likes to eat and sleep.

14 thoughts on “Choice and Anxiety

  1. Love this! Last night after dinner, our family sat down and made a list of 12 things that we’ll do to celebrate the Christmas season. I, too, feel overwhelmed–especially because I almost always have an academic schedule as a teacher or a student. This way we solicited input from all about what would be essential (we stopped at 12), and we can walk away from all the rest. Top 4 choices were eggnog, cookies, visiting a mature woman from our previous ward who has a great creche collection, and visiting the grandparents who are in driving distance. My best to you and your darling family as you celebrate the season in ways most appropriate for your personalities and situation. (I wish I could go with you to see Les Mis. We could share a box of tissues.)

  2. This is a great post, Jessie. And Barry Schwartz’s book is first-rate; I made it the cornerstone of a class on simplicity which I taught last year. The idea that multiplying choices doesn’t increase our freedom, but actually can make us more dissatisfied and frustrated and thus “less free,” should seem obvious to anyone who has ever scanned through cable TV listings, but it was nonetheless really eye-opening to some of my students. Good luck in navigating it all this holiday season!

  3. That apartment complex in Seattle was the best.

    But to go off what Russell said, aren’t we choosing to be less free when we are dissatisfied with our many choices? To me, no matter where we live or what our situation, we get to choose if we’re going to be satisfied with the choices we have. If we’re not, then all we can do is change our level of choice, or, for some of us, our exposure to choice (or we can sit around and be frustrated, but that’s hardly the point).

    I completely agree that it’s hard to deal with too many choices, but at least those of us with too many options also have more options in how we control our environment. When you’re stuck with very limited choices, I think it’s harder to control what choices we’re presented with.

  4. I lived in that same area of Utah with all of the grocery stores so close. I don’t live there anymore and now my only close grocery store is Smith’s. I miss having all those grocery stores so close by :)

  5. I used to sit down on Thanksgiving weekend with my five children and fill out the December calendar with one thing we’d do each day to “celebrate” Christmas. Some were very simple: read a favorite book, watch a holiday video, get out the Nativity scenes. Some were more elaborate: decorate the tree (we always called it a party, and I served special foods as a buffet for dinner that night, so we could eat and decorate at the same time.) We’d include one thing like the ballet or a concert, too. One event was always “drive around and look at Christmas lights while listening to Christmas music in the car.”

    I did this for two reasons: I didn’t have much money, so I didn’t want Christmas to be just one morning when the presents were unwrapped. The second reason was just what you talked about: there are soooo many choices at this time of year. We made our choices, we did those things, and occasionally something spontaneous popped up, but by having a plan we felt relieved.

    By the time Christmas morning arrived, it was just another event in our schedule. We’d actually celebrated all month long, and it took the pressure off from the Big Day. It also allowed us to focus on doing for others, which proves to be a big blessing anytime of year.

  6. Posted too soon–meant to say that I am so grateful to be a LDS woman and have the guidance of the Spirit to help make the best choices for me and mine from what is available.

  7. Great posts. I can most relate when picking food – I have the worst time making decisions at restaurants!

    Lately we have really struggled regarding birthday and Christmas gifts for our families. There are 11 on my side and 7 on his. Small families I realize – and yet I agonize over gifts! How much should we spend on each person? Does it need to be uniform? And if we keep it to $15 or less that is still a lot of money when we are sticking to a tight budget. One year we told everyone we weren’t doing gifts and didn’t expect any. Then I felt like the biggest jerk on Christmas when everyone gave is gifts!

  8. Very nice. This is something I think a lot about. I served a mission a dozen years ago in Brasil (with robin marie!), and spent most of my time in smaller cities and towns. Although supermercados in the bigger cities offered lots of options, my areas usually had tiny little corner stores. If you wanted yogurt, your options were strawberry and strawberry. Milk came in whole and skim, toothpaste in mint and lime-mint. I vividly remember my first shopping trip after arriving back home in suburban southern California. I stared in awe at the shampoo aisle of the local x-mart… floor to ceiling, full of shampoo and conditioner choices… and felt completely overwhelmed. I’ve developed pretty strong brand loyalty in the intervening years, because having once considered and chosen from among my many options, I’m loathe to do it again. About 90% of my clothes, bedding and linens come from the same two online retailers, and I do almost all of my food shopping at trader joe’s and the local food co-op–both relatively small stores by US standards.

    But then, even with all that, every now and again comes a decision where I have to confront all my choices. I spent almost two months without a cell phone because I felt completely paralyzed by all the options. It’s a problem.

  9. That is such a great book, I still think of it all the time, and try to counsel friends who are making (to me) insignificant decisions, such as which camera to buy, that they are at risk of never being satisfied, if they can only be happy with the very best camera at the very best price. (Be a satisficer, not a maximizer)

  10. I find that too many choices does NOT make me free. Too many choices means that I have to spend too much time thinking about which choice is the best. I have a house to run and four children to raise. It really reduces my happiness to have to spend so much time researching the pros and cons and then weighing them and coming to a decision and then wondering if I made the right choice.
    In life we do have to end up just letting some things go. There are so many, many things that I know would be great but I don’t have time to figure it out and learn (like map directions on my phone). I can weed out a lot of unimportant tasks.
    But when it comes to raising children in the best way possible, you don’t want to make a poor choice out of ignorance so you have to research and you have to talk to people to find out what you don’t know. It is exhausting.
    I’m not saying I don’t want the choices, but it is important to understand that there is a cost to having choices and there is a cost to trying to make the “best” choice.

  11. Thanks so much for this post, Jess. After reading your words, my family made plans for Christmas we are all excited about.

    p.s. I thought The Distant Hours was weak too, but The Secret Keeper more than made up for it!

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