What’s happened to my brain?
This was the thought that struck me when I sat down to watch TV last weekend. It was meant to be a relaxing night on the couch, snuggled under a blanket to escape the winter chill.
In a world with infinite options, we risk missing the simple pleasures by constantly searching for something — or someone — better.Credit:Shutterstock
But it only took a few clicks of the remote before that uneasy feeling gripped me.
It was an all too familiar low grade anxiety that rears its head each time I turn on the television to peruse the endless choices in front of me.
I have Netflix, Stan, Foxtel Now, and countless free-to-air channels with their "on demand" services, offering a virtual smorgasbord of movies, drama serials, comedy classics, crime shows, documentaries and everything in between, right there at my fingertips.
And I still couldn’t find anything to watch.
I kept scrolling, scrolling, scrolling — searching for the ‘right’ viewing option. Nothing felt satisfying. I was like a junk food addict who had binged so heavily on cheeseburgers and ice cream, I could no longer enjoy the taste. It all felt so bland and disappointing.
Had television broken my brain? Or in our age of convenience have we become literally spoilt for choice?
Whether it’s streaming TV and music, online shopping, home delivered food, or finding a life partner — we have never had more options, all at the touch of a button. But, if we’re not careful, the downside of this choice overload will be the diminishing of joy.
In a world with infinite options, we risk missing the simple pleasures by constantly searching for something — or someone — better.
It’s a law of diminishing returns that can leave us profoundly disappointed with our life choices and evoke a crippling sense of buyer’s remorse. Because, despite what our pleasure-seeking, ‘more, more, more’ brains would have us believe, the greater the options, the more unsatisfied we feel with the choices we make.
This is what US psychologist Barry Schwartz calls "The Paradox of Choice".
In his best-selling book of the same name, he maintains that far from making us happier and more prosperous, the consumer-driven choice economy is making us miserable.
“It can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures,” he writes.
And when we’re overwhelmed with choice we often end up choosing nothing at all — a phenomenon Schwartz calls "analysis paralysis".
When we can’t cope with the bewildering array of offerings, we opt out completely. Or revert to the safe and familiar — which might explain why I found myself bypassing all the new releases and once again watching reruns of Sex and the City.
The paradox of choice was famously demonstrated in the Columbia University "jam study", which gave supermarket shoppers the option of choosing from a table offering six samples of jam or one displaying 24 varieties.
While more people stopped at the table with 24 choices, only 3 per cent went on to purchase a jar, compared to a third of all shoppers who stopped at the table with just six varieties.
Twenty years since the jam study was published, we are bombarded with more choice than ever before and many of us are hankering for a simpler time.
Research from insurance comparison service Choosi in 2017 found that almost 90 per cent of Australians believe that too much choice is making decision-making harder.
Our caveman brains are just not wired to manage the overload of options that modern life throws at us.
Schwartz says if we want to live a more fulfilled life, we have to pare it right back or we risk falling into the trap of what he describes as the "escalation of expectations".
Essentially, the more options we’re presented with, the greater return we expect on our investment.
Schwartz says: “Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results.”
Applied to my own life, I can see that this overload of choice has left me perpetually striving for more.
It’s an unhealthy habit but it can’t simply be explained as a consumerist trend.
When I’m scrambling around to find the best podcast, the most gripping TV series or stimulating audiobook, it’s often driven by more than a simple desire to be entertained.
This pursuit of the "perfect" choice is an attempt to fill a gap; an unspoken longing for a salve to soothe my unease.
When nothing is completely satisfying, joy can feel fleeting so we keep swiping in the hope of grasping on to something more meaningful.
What I’ve started to learn is that in these moments I don’t really need to find the hottest new Netflix series or must-have consumer bargain.
I need to pause, take a deep breath and ask myself what I’m really searching for.
Jill Stark is a regular columnist and author of Happy Never After: Why The Happiness Fairytale Is Driving Us Mad.
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