Freedom of Choice

Written by
Michael Wells

Freedom of Choice

And how it affects happiness

Written by
Michael Wells

Freedom of Choice

And how it affects happiness

Written by
Michael Wells
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Ever since I was a little kid, I've been told...

“Do what you love.”

It was a credit to my parents that I was encouraged to find my passions, and pursue them as my career. I liked having a choice, and the freedom to find my own way in life.

Where I grew up in the US, most parents raised their kids this way- and I thought that was normal everywhere in the World. But after traveling a bit, I've since learned that other cultures, and other families, are different.

For them, choice exists, but... it's restricted[1].

How important is choice?

About half of the people I coach didn’t have the freedom to choose their careers.

They were pressured to choose from a narrowly-defined set of careers like medicine, law, or engineering. Or, they were given broader freedom, but with "no-go" zones like like art, music, and dance.

A few were given no freedom at all, and simply expected to follow their parents example or perhaps to take over the family business. I've seen whole families who know only one career path- they all enlisted in the military, or they all became career police officers. In some cases you'll find whole families of business owners, politicians, teachers, musicians, farmers, or fishermen[2].

This happens because tradition and approval are powerful forces- but also, if you grow up in a family like this, it's all you know.

And- for women especially- many are expected to be full-time mothers and homemakers. That's absolutely a career choice too- and one of the more challenging careers. There are few breaks, no weekends, no holidays... and no sick leave, ever. You can't even quit for about 20 years.

Are those people unhappy?

Some are, but not all of them.

Here's what I see among my clients[3] who had their career choices restricted by parental influence or cultural pressure.

Here's how that breaks down...

  • Very Happy. A rare few - about 4% - of my clients lucked out. Despite the restrictions their parents and culture placed on them, they found a career that they are deeply passionate about. They're very happy, and have family approval too. Double-win.
  • Happy. A far greater number - roughly 20% - identify as happy. They've managed to make their career choice fun-enough. They enjoy it, but mostly they enjoy the social approval that their family and culture give them. They're happy because they're admired, and there's nothing wrong with that... but given a choice, that particular career might not have been their ideal calling. Going to work does not fill them with excitement- but they appreciate what they have.
  • Content. Most - about 58% - are content with what they are doing. It wouldn't be their first choice, and they often wonder "what if?" they'd gone into a career that they are passionate about. Life is stable, and they have no real complaints - but weekdays are filled with drudgery. There is no meaning or excitement in their work. They live for weekends and vacations, and dream of retirement.
  • Unhappy. Too many - about 18% - are miserable. They work, because they have to pay the mortgage and feed their family. These are important things, but the work experience itself is a grind- and they feel trapped with no way to quit, switch careers or improve their work experience. These are the people that buy lottery tickets every week, praying that they'll win so that they can quit work tomorrow.

What about those who had the freedom to choose?

Well, obviously, this will be a far happier group of people, right?

But in fact, among people who had complete freedom to choose their careers, the happiness ratings aren't much different.

Even more paradoxically- the ratings were both better, and worse. If you look at the ends of the scale, you see more who are Very Happy, but also more who are Unhappy.

You might be looking at the chart as I first did, with a bit of confusion. I can imagine you saying...

‍_“But.. wait.. they got to choose their own careers, right?!
How is this possible for them to be so unhappy with what they themselves chose?”_

How important is choice, really?

Put simply, the freedom to choose is not the central factor in determining happiness and satisfaction in life.

To understand this, let's look at another important area of life, our romantic relationships. In our choice of a marriage partner, we can see a similar behaviors, and similar results.

  • We imagine that choosing the right partner is essential to our life happiness.
  • We pursue just the right ingredients, involving attraction, goals, values, trust, communication, shared interests, personality.
  • We go on possibly hundreds of Tinder dates in search of The One.

But does it really make a difference?

Today, arranged marriages are relatively rare in most parts of the World- however they still exist in India, Pakistan, Africa, China and Japan. In India, up to 60% of all marriages are arranged.

Most of us imagine that an arranged marriage would be boring. Our parents would choose a poor-fit partner who we could barely tolerate, much less want to get sexy with.

But in truth... the satisfaction levels reported in arranged marriages are essentially the same as in love marriages.

Does that blow your mind?

Measured another way, the "success" of arranged marriages could be considered far higher. While there are many cultural factors, divorces in love marriages are a terrifying 40% in the USA, while divorces in arranged marriages are 4%... a mere 1/10th.

Why freedom of choice fails to deliver happiness

Here are three primary reasons...

#1 - We have unrealistic expectations

In a marriage satisfaction, there are a lot of factors involved, including cultural norms and family support. But happiness is largely due to expectations.

If you expect security, support, sex and companionship, any half-decent romantic relationship will provide those things. But if you expect happiness... non-stop ecstasy... constant joy and validation... well... you might find yourself disappointed.

Yet, we delude ourselves that this is what a "normal" relationship should look like.

In terms of happiness, career choices work the same way...

And here's the problem...

When we get to choose what, or who, we believe will make us happiest, we expect that thing or person to make us happy. When that doesn't happen, those expectations create disappointment, and even resentment.

#2 - We don't know what to choose

Choices are always difficult, because they involve trying to predict hundreds of things that are all in the future, and that are far outside of our control.

In our career choices, these include questions like...

"Will I actually enjoy this type of work, and will it be meaningful to me?"
"How strong will this industry be in 20 years?"
"Is my job going to be obsolete anytime soon?"

In our romantic relationships...

"Is this person trustworthy?"
"Will they make a good relationship partner?"
"Will I still like them, and be attracted to them, in 10 years?"
"Are they healthy, and will live a long healthy life?"
"If we have children, are our genetics a good match to make healthy kids?"

#3 - We don't even know what we want

To significantly complicate matters- most of us make the big decisions like career, marriage, and parenting are made in our 20s. For some, even earlier.

But how well do you actually know yourself then?

I'm past my 20s now, and still the question "what do I want?" is a constant exploration of myself, my experiences, and the possibilities of my life.

I'm not sure I'll ever have a final answer.

So, what can we do, then?

My favorite solution pattern in self-development consists of two simple phases.

  1. Perspective. Clarify and adjust your perspective. If you can't see the problem clearly, you'll always be at its mercy.
  2. Action. Apply basic principles, tactics and strategies in your life that will help you avoid the problems, and to resolve them quickly when they occur.

Here is how I approach this challenge in my own life.

Build a better perspective

So here's the hard truth. Embrace it...

We're not particularly good at predicting things we don't control. That includes the future, industries, economies and markets, and most especially- other people.

Big areas of our life sit squarely in this un-predictable space. Will our career and our relationship turn out well, and be all that we want them to be? No one knows. You can do your best, but none of us can see the future, or guarantee success in the life areas.

It's OK to be unable to predict or control our future- as long as we can adapt. Managing our expectations, and maintaining flexibility, is what matters most. You don't need to know where the river is going, as long as you can steer the boat.

The freedom to make choices doesn't guarantee any greater degree of success or happiness. In a world where 40% of love marriages end in divorce, we know that as humans, we suck at predicting things.

Build a better strategy

Always manage your expectations

The moment you find yourself expecting things to turn out a specific way, you've limited your options, and made yourself vulnerable to surprise and disappointment. Maybe even catastrophe.

This is harder than you think. When you're driving your car, you expect people to stay in their lanes, and signal when they want to switch. When you have a green light, you expect the cars with red lights to stop.

But what happens if they don't?

Minimize the importance of your choices

Where possible, maintain your flexibility in life as much as possible. Try to make choices that you are free to change. With care, you'll be surprised how much flexibility you can create- even in your career and relationships. Truly, you would be amazed at what I've seen people create.

Always have a Plan B, because... Plan A just might go sideways. Sometimes, it will.

Actively open doors, and maintain options where it makes sense.

Find your Yodas

No one climbs Everest without a good Sherpa. Life is hard, and a bad decision or a lack of visibility can cost you everything.

To prevent this, build great connections with people that you respect and trust- people whose perspectives are far better developed than yours. These are your mentors, and you want to surround yourself with them.

Create a board of directors for your Life. You want mentors who are successful in their relationships. Mentors are great at parenting. Mentors who have advanced far and successfully in your career path. Sages, advisors, coaches... Yodas, everywhere.


Freedom of choice has little to do with creating happiness, and we want to be happy...

So why have freedom to choose at all?

Why not just make a society where the elders make all the life decisions for the younger generations, the way decisions were made by tribal elders for its people throughout history?

To a certain extent, we already apply this approach in specific situations in modern society. Parents make choices for their children, teachers for their students, executives for their employees. governments for their citizens.

In some social groups and cultures, this "elder" approach is still dominant. In traditional Asian families, the eldest generation makes the big family decisions for as long as they are able to. Within religious groups, the elders are called on to make decisions regarding the community, marriage, career, children, and more.

In many ways, with good leaders, this can end up creating the best result for the individuals, and for the community overall as well. The elders have greater life experience, and are not as directly affected by the powerful emotions that drive our choices, like lust and fear.

To good to be true?

In many respects, this approach would create better lives, with far greater success and far less anguish.

But of course there are problems...

People are imperfect. They can be corrupted. They can make mistakes, or be biased. And of course, even with the best leaders, people eventually die.

And we're likely to face an emotional challenge too...

Even if we were willing to give up our personal autonomy, our emotional mind would likely resent that situation, and fight it - because when we don't have the opportunity to choose, we feel oppressed.

This is a fascinating aspect of psychology. We want freedom of choice, even when having choice doesn't benefit us.

Every parent knows that from a very young age, children crave autonomy in the form of choices. Tell a child to eat their broccoli and you might get some resistance. Ask your child to choose between broccoli and Brussels sprouts- and whichever they choose, they'll likely do much better at finishing their dinner.

Why? Because when we feel like we have freedom, we feel in control of the world around us. Even when that control is a bit fictional.

For whatever reason, our own decisions just... taste better.

What the future holds

Before long, this situation may be tested hard.

Soon, AI's will have more information-processing and predictive abilities than any great sage has ever been gifted. Already, AI's can drive cars, and solve enormously complex problems like protein folding. Already, AI's can beat grand masters in chess, and in go.

AI's have unparalleled ability to see all the options, and compute best outcomes.

Forms of AI are pretty good at predicting what music you'll like on Spotify, what movies you'll like on Netflix, and what posts and ads you'll click on Instagram.

How long will it be before an AI can examine your life, and the lives of others who share similar interests, personality, and culture, and be able to accurately suggest things like the career you'll find most fulfilling, or the relationship partner you'll be happies with?

We've got a way to go, and a good deal of philosophical and moral problems to solve.

This possibility is coming far sooner than you think, and I imagine it will be an outgrowth of AI's already being developed for medical diagnosis, psychological diagnosis, and even stock market prediction.

But how will we feel about that?

Already, it's hard for us to let go of the steering wheel in the car, and trust the car to drive us safely.

How would it feel to let go of the steering wheel of your life?

It's a good time to reflect on freedom of choice, and autonomy, and why it matters because soon, you might have the option to give that responsibility to someone else.

“Zuck... what do I want for breakfast?”

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. Last updated on 
July 24, 2022

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      Culture, and choice

      [1] Culturally, the concept of choice- particularly for kids and young adults, seems most different in India, China, and the Middle East. It's likely that there are other cultures I have not yet encountered, which also embrace unique ideas about individual choice.

      The opportunity factor

      [2] For completeness, it's worth pointing out that some career choices are driven by opportunity. In many areas of the world historically, you became a farmer, a coal miner, or a fisherman because those were the jobs available.

      That is still true of many areas of the world today.

      I think this is an important discussion, too- however I've left this discussion out-of-band of the main article, because most of us reading this live with a wide, modern spectrum of career opportunities.

      We have lots of choices, which paradoxically... comes with a big pile of confusion and stress.

      Happiness charts

      [3] It's important to note here that the data I've collected and charts I've produced are based on my own assessments made in private 1:1 coaching sessions.

      • Data includes 582 clients, over 75% of which are male.
      • Data collected over a 20 year span ( Jan 2002 - Jul 2022 )
      • All scorings and evaluations were made subjectively by me.

      I tracked and evaluated clients on 5 levels of career happiness...

      However for this article, I merged "Unhappy" and "Very Unhappy" into a single group. The reason is simply that I found "Very Unhappy" to be a temporary state. Clients would never stay here long, and would choose one of two resolutions.

      Either they would confront their boss, or change companies to improve their working situation and environment- or they would switch careers. Even with a well-established career investment, this option is preferable to years of misery.

      A notable source of distortion here is that I collected data based on the current satisfaction level that clients had in their career. In fact there are at least two separate elements-

      1. Career fulfillment. Happiness about the work itself, how passionate you feel about it, how strongly it leverages your skills, and the sense of fulfillment it gives you.
      2. Work environment. Includes the environment and the people you work with, such as your boss, your team, and your clients.

      Either of these can influence your overall happiness significantly, and that influence can be positive or negative. You might not like what you do, but love the team you work with. Or you might be passionate about your work, but hate your boss.

      I wasn't able to separate these evaluations clearly, so I've left them combined and trust that they even out enough to make the evaluations useful anyway.

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