Life can be frustrating. It can be annoying, it can be disappointing, and it can be anger-inducing, at times.
But I’d argue that it isn’t this way because life is too hard.
I’d say it’s this way because life is too complex. It’s not just complex, mind you. It’s TOO complex. The difference is important. Indeed, it’s complex enough to be overwhelming. And the “overwhelming” part is what gets you…
“Overwhelming” is one of those words whose very powerful meaning has been lost to overuse. “To overwhelm” means something very specific, and very frightening. It means to direct so much of something at a given target that the target’s defenses just shut down completely, allowing the poor defenseless target to be overrun.
That’s what’s happening to you, if your life is too hard.
And what’s overwhelming about life today is this…
Freedom of Choice
The phrase “freedom of choice” has been touted as a fantastic thing for as long as you can remember. Right? It’s regarded as a sort of capitalist Holy Grail.
But is it really?
When it comes to making choices in modern, global, internet-and-TV driven consumer society, we have no natural defenses. Evolution just didn’t prepare us. That means we’re forced to rely on a little something called “common sense.” Common sense is nothing more than the ability of the mind to make reasonable decisions about what is (or isn’t) good for us, based on limited data.
But today, we live in an era where we’re forced to make choices about what is (or isn’t) good for us in every area of life, from a globally-spawned list of infinite choices.
When we decide what food to buy, we have to choose from among hundreds of shelves of options, from dozens of different worldly cuisines, from any of several ways of packaging and processing, and from an ever-growing list of food and grocery stores.
When we decide what to major in at college, we’re offered a choice of 122 different majors, with books, websites, classmates, professors, and advisors touting each as a potential path to intellectual and professional salvation…and a college system that encourages us to dabble infinitely, as long as we pay the tuition.
When we decide what to do with our lives, which dreams to follow, which to let die, where to live, what to dare, who to love…the influences become more and louder. They become more insistent. This happens because the stakes are so high…our very mortal lives are at stake…as is our disposable income, of course.
The point is, our common sense defenses get knocked about by so much contradictory and conflicting evidence that this relatively simple psychological defense mechanism gets…you guessed it…overwhelmed.
And what happens when common sense gets (literally) overwhelmed?
Common Sense Shuts Down
When this happens, we can no longer rely on that internal defense system to tell us the safest, sanest path to follow.
But there’s a funny thing about living organisms. When our only defense mechanism shuts down, we try to keep using it anyway. And in the case of common sense, what happens is, because our internal defenses are shot, we end up relying on an EXTERNAL defense mechanism.
That mechanism is “Social common sense.”
And it works like this:
The Voice With the Biggest Megaphone Becomes the New Common Sense.
Now, “the biggest megaphone” can mean a lot of things in each person’s life. It can be the advertisements he sees most often. It can be social or peer pressure. It can be nagging from a husband, wife, or child. It can be something as simple as “the way everyone else is doing it.”
But look at what happens when the defense mechanisms become externalized.
Millions of people, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that moving into a more expensive house in a more expensive neighborhood must CERTAINLY be the right thing to do, literally mortgage their futures, going tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt to buy predominantly-drywall houses in far-flung suburban communities where they know nobody…have no friends…feel no sense of community.
Millions of people, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that cubicle-dwelling office jobs in the service industries (probably with a distant promise of a corner office someday) are so obviously and objectively better than life in a blue-collar trade, borrow themselves into poverty to buy the educational credentials for these jobs. Only to discover that increasingly these jobs don’t exist, or get shipped to lower bidders overseas, or just flat-out suck.
Overwhelmed by choice, we end up making POOR decisions that make us less happy, less integrated, less socially useful, and poorer. It takes very little imagination to realize that similar externalized “common sense” results in less free time, poorer health, depression, anxiety, and a whole litany of substance abuse issues and psychological and physical maladies.
This Is Freedom?
Here’s a basic psychological fact. With fewer choices available, people are overwhelmingly happy. It’s only when more and more choices become possible that social pressures begin to dictate that some are superior to others…that market forces come to bear and make the “best” choices increasingly unattainable.
And it’s only when we begin to be told that we can’t have what we want that we start to feel “frustration of choice.”
This is why only a few people can get into the country’s top law school each year…even though the job outlook for lawyers is increasingly dim…and the job satisfaction results coming in from surveys may be even dimmer.
This is why comparatively mundane careers like firefighter, teacher, artist, and machinery operator, even though they all feature at the top of the careercast.com job satisfaction rankings, are considered “lesser” options by the intellectual elite.
This is why people are so eager to move from neighborhood to neighborhood, from city to city, from social class to social class. Even though it inevitably means they will always and forever be trying to integrate themselves into new social circles where they’re no longer special, and have built up no social equity. (And which they will settle into just long enough to begin pining for the next one up the ladder.)
So How Do I Make It Better?
If overwhelming choice in all areas of life is the cause of most of life’s stress and poor decision making, then the cure must be the opposite.
Restrict your choices.
We used to be happy when we thought chocolate and vanilla were all there were. Remember? Vanilla only became a synonym for “boring” once we became accustomed to having a whole freezer-section full of flavors. Pralines and Cream. Chunky Monkey. Moosetracks.
And here’s the good news. You can short circuit that kind of thinking by embracing the simple things.
Realize that the simple things — *cough* vanilla *cough* — made people really, honestly, genuinely happy and satisfied for ages. Only when culture told us we should stop being happy with the simple things did complexity rear its ugly head.
My advice: screw that.
Don’t spend your life out of shape because you’re looking for the perfect diet or exercise program. Latch on to a few fundamentals, treat them like the only options on the planet, and embrace them. Run. Swim. Squat. Deadlift. Maybe throw in a few pushups. They’re fundamentals for a reason: they work, and have worked for hundreds of years.
Don’t spend your life fretting over how to best become upwardly mobile. Find a place you like to be, among people you enjoy, and grow IN it, not beyond it. Embrace new experiences instead of new acquisitions. Become OUTwardly mobile, rather than upwardly. There’s a lot to be said for becoming a big and worldly fish in a small and congenial pond.
Apply this kind of thinking to every area of your life, and you begin to reclaim your right to your own common sense.
And then the megaphones go silent.
Photo by Peter Alfred Hess