The paradox of choice

13 min read

Over the past few months, I finished Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. Solidly in the self-help category, this book was more a reminder than a lesson, but one important takeaway that I had was around the paradox of choice. Even in a world of abundance, we still face the key constraint of time, and this single element of our lives inherently limits the scope of what we can achieve. The term “paradox of choice”, first popularized by Barry Schwartz in a book by the same name, has even more significance in a world that is digital, fast-paced, and rooted increasingly on comparison and expectation. We all know and recognize that it impossible to live a perfect life, yet we may be tempted to maximize our life to the best of our ability. We do this against a backdrop that feels like a never-ending series of choices. I could be doing so many things right now, how can I possibly know that writing a blog post is the best action to take.

There are two key behaviours that can result when faced with an overwhelming amount of choices: we either freeze and do not select anything at all, or we make a decision and then spend copious amounts of time wondering if the decision we made was the best one. In Choice Overload and Asymmetric Regret, Butaruk and Evren propose a model that accounts for individuals choosing to defer to the default, because in doing so they are less likely to experience regret than if they were to select one of the other options presented. This model can also account for individuals deferring the choice to others. If an individual has no choice in the matter, then they cannot blame themselves at a later time, either through a change in preference or through the realization that the outcome of the choice is not as they originally imagined. We often follow the decisions of others because it minimizes the regret that we will hold ourselves responsible for — if we regret our choices it is their fault, not ours. Whether that “their” is a singular person or a group of people that we feel are like us makes no difference, what is key is that it is external to ourselves.

Daniel Kahneman highlights a great example of how we are more likely to perceive regret as a result of intentional action in Thinking Fast and Slow:

Paul owns shares in company A. During the past year he considered switching to stock in company B, but he decided against it. He now learns that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had switched to the stock of company B.

George owned shares in company B. During the past year he switched to stock in company A. He now learns that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had kept his stock in company B.

Who feels greater regret? 92% say George.

For decisions that are congruent with norms (of our peers, society, or of expectations) we experience less regret than those that go against the grain, especially when we act rather than remain complacent[1]. This is mediated by the degree to which we have an internal locus of control[2], the belief that we are responsible for the outcomes in our lives. It is painful to feel that a negative outcome resulted from us choosing to make a bold decision, and so it can be tempting to hide in the safety of the crowd. When we look to what others are doing, downward social comparisons can help us reduce regret that we feel for our own life choices[3]. Perhaps it is for this reason that we try so hard to brag about our own achievements — we want to see if we can find facts to support a downward comparison that will make us more satisfied with our life choices.

In the paragraphs above, I have mostly described regret when faced with a single choice, or a single action. What happens when we take this same idea of regret in the face of overwhelming choice and apply it to life? How can we possibly deal with the possibility that we may regret the one and only journey we have? To make matters worse, we are are bombarded with upward social comparisons on social media[4], showing us how others are choosing to forge their lives. It may be tempting to be more like them, because they have figured out how to avoid the thoughts of regret that plague us.

What do we regret most?

The kinds of things we regret, unsurprisingly, appear to change over our life course. Yet, a 2004 paper on 176 participants found that only two categories, work and education, were significantly related to overall life satisfaction[5]. At first, I was surprised by this, because other studies have shown that relationships are the single most important driver of happiness when we look at life holistically (in fact, there is an excellent book written solely on one of the major studies that shows this, The Good Life). However, perhaps this is due to our perception of control and modern hustle culture. We cannot always achieve friendship, love, or a supporting family through hard work, but society does reinforce the idea that success in the workplace and education is meritocratic; if only we put in the effort it will come. When we don’t achieve our desired results in these two areas, we blame ourselves and the choices we made. In comparing ourselves to our peers’ careers, research indicates that we experience regret when we think about others who have made a different choice than us[6]:

When a student received information involving a comparison with a peer who had made a different choice highly valued by themselves as well, and was primed to think about the advantages the peer friend enjoyed, the student’s certainty about their original career choice was significantly decreased.

The paper also offers insight into how we can alleviate the painful comparisons that stem from career comparisons. Higher vocational identity (clarity and purpose around one’s career) does not shield us from experiencing regret, but it does help us cope with that regret and prevent that regret from influencing our career choices further.

Can choices and their outcomes result in greater overall happiness?

If we are putting so much weight into distilling and deciding between a set of choices to minimize regret, perhaps it is prudent to ask if choices and their outcomes can even lead to sustained happiness in the first place. Data from the British Household Panel Survey shows which events lead to either decreases or increases in happiness, and I have listed the top 3 on either end (both the most happy and the most unhappy) below[7].

Top three events leading to an increase in happiness: New relationship, Employment gain (job), Finance (house)

Top three events leading to a decrease in happiness: End of relationship, Death (parent), Health (parent)

Surprisingly, holidays did not rank particularly highly in comparison to the other events, nor did pet ownership or relationships within the family. These data support the findings that it is relationships that make us happy, and cause significant sadness in the event that they are lost (either a partner or a parent).

Hedonic adaption is a force that would run counter to the idea that choices and their outcomes can influence our happiness — whatever outcome is achieved we will ultimately adapt to, causing our happiness to reset to baseline. The figure below, from Our World in Data illustrates this effect for some events, mainly the birth of a child, a layoff, or marriage.

Graphs showing the effect of life events on happiness

Lucus et al. argue that looking at averages obscures the fact that for some individuals, marriage does create a lasting improvement in happiness[8], however without knowing whether we ourselves will be one of those individuals, it is difficult to apply that finding to our own lives.

The data in the chart above about unemployment does offer some striking insight, out of all the things that could happen, unemployment seems to be one of the worst (at least among the set presented there) for overall long-term happiness. Everything else doesn’t seem to matter so much. A report published out of the University of Groningen[9] argues that the sharp decrease in happiness that results from unemployment is due to a loss of self-esteem, which brings us back to discussions in many of the earlier sections of this post. We experience gains or losses of happiness not from what materially has changed, rather how this impacts deeper roots of who we are as humans; how we see ourselves in relation to others, and how supported we feel by the relationships in our lives.

How can we align our choices to result in the greatest happiness?

I wish I had an easy answer to one of life’s greatest questions. In the face of overwhelming choice about what to do with our lives — what I had described here under the umbrella of the paradox of choice — perhaps it is best to recognize the factors that may influence us in how we decide, what the experience of others can teach us, and how we can expand our scope to reduce the stress of any one choice.

Regret stings, and we may try to avoid making decisions so as not to blame ourselves

Whether this means that we select the default option, align our choices with what we believe is prescribed to us, or follow the crowd the end result is the same — we lose out on the agency that following our heart would provide due to fear. Those that felt the greatest sense of purpose and calling in what they did had the best coping mechanisms when faced with negative upward comparisons to peers. Instead of looking for downward comparisons, we can practice gratitude for what we have, recognizing that many have not been as fortunate. This can boost the happiness we feel from the outcomes of our choices.

When measuring big life events, it is people that matter most

In the British survey, it is clearly the addition or loss of people in our lives that matter most to our happiness, particularly those that love us. Other factors, such as vacations or cars, don’t influence our happiness as much as we might imagine. Instead of stressing over small choices, we can instead seek to align our choices with what would allow us to keep people that matter to us close. Working long hours to afford a fancy holiday or car is not worth a breakup, or missing time with parents before they pass away. However, putting in effort to advance one’s career to facilitate major milestones (boosts in pay or affording a house) may substantially alter major aspects of our lives.

An internal locus of control, and protection of our self-esteem can help shield us from negative emotions

Ultimately what we seek are not things nor experiences, but rather a simple sense that we are enough and in control of our lives. Chasing milestones and worrying about the choices needed to get there will never be sufficient to afford us these comforts. Only through looking inwards can we remedy the sense that we have chosen wrongly out of the sea of endless options. Feeling value in our own right, instead of relative to others, is the best defense we have against negative upward comparison. As outlined in the Psychology of Money, life is as much about the freedom to choose as it is about our material wealth. We should seek to seize control of that ability, and not let the fear of regret stand in our way.

Having a strong sense of controlling one’s life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of wellbeing than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered.


We face an abundance of choice, more than we have ever faced as individuals throughout the whole of human history. Importantly, we also now have the tools to more easily view the choices that others have made, and the outcomes those choices have brought. Through looking at our biases surrounding regret, the building blocks that contribute to lifelong happiness, and the underlying core emotions that we hope to obtain through our choices, we can see that large big events seldom play the role we think they will in our lives. Keep those you care about close, stay employed to the best of your ability, and pursue those options that would grant you the most freedom to live how you choose. Next to those big themes, our choices merely represent the small steps that carve out the exact path to get there.

  1. Feldman, G., & Albarracín, D. (2017). Norm theory and the action-effect: The role of social norms in regret following action and inaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69, 111–120. ↩︎

  2. Hernandez, J. M. C., Costa Filho, M., Kamiya, A. S. M., Pasquini, R. O., & Zeelenberg, M. (2022). Internal locus of control and individuals’ regret for normal vs. abnormal decisions. Personality and Individual Differences, 192, 111562. ↩︎

  3. Bauer, I., Wrosch, C., & Jobin, J. (2008). I’m better off than most other people: The role of social comparisons for coping with regret in young adulthood and old age. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 800–811. ↩︎

  4. Vogel, E. A., Rose, J. P., Roberts, L. R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206–222. ↩︎

  5. Jokisaari, M. Regrets and Subjective Well-Being: A Life Course Approach. Journal of Adult Development 11, 281–288 (2004). ↩︎

  6. Li, X., Hou, Z.-J., & Jia, Y. (2015). The influence of social comparison on career decision-making: Vocational identity as a moderator and regret as a mediator. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 86, 10–19. ↩︎

  7. Dimitris Ballas, Danny Dorling, Measuring the impact of major life events upon happiness, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 36, Issue 6, December 2007, Pages 1244–1252, ↩︎

  8. Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003). Reexamining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(3), 527–539. ↩︎

  9. van der Meer, P. H., & Wielers, R. (2016). Happiness, unemployment and self-esteem. (SOM Research Reports; Vol. 16016-HRM&OB). University of Groningen, SOM research school. ↩︎