In the modern industrialized parts of the world, the mantra is “to maximize freedom means to maximize choice.” In order for us to enjoy freedom, we must have more choice. Choice is not limited to material objects such as clothes, cuisine and gadgets, but also our subjectivity; our gender, sexuality and individual characteristics are now our decision. Being your own individual with your own choices is emphasized. Even Barbie teaches young girls, “real style is about fiercely expressing yourself!” Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of sexuality etc. have all become markers of a civilized society.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz states that freedom of choice in our modern world has actually left us feeling more dissatisfied. Instead of affording us the joy of freedom, the excess of choice causes paralysis. Whilst his theory has its critics and does not apply to all choices, it resonates with my own experiences in recent decisions.
It also serves to argue for the fixed boundaries provided by religion. Broadly speaking, people are happier when they are given rules and restrictions rather than left to their own desires. Schwartz brings forth the example of two fish. The larger fish says to the small fish, “You can be anything you want to be – no limits.” However, if the fishbowl is shattered so as to allow all possibilities, the fish will be overwhelmed with the paralysis of choices rather than gaining freedom.
Likewise as humans, we need a fish bowl. Absence of some metaphorical fish bowl is a recipe for misery, disaster and chaos. He does not extend this argument to prove religion is the best way to manage society – this is the position I hold. However, this argument explains how, to an outsider, Islam may seem like a list of dos and don’ts, but to Muslims these very restrictions serve to liberate.
Schwartz claims that too much choice has four outcomes: paralysis when making a decision, less satisfaction with the outcome, initial escalation of expectations, and self-blame.
1. Paralysis when making a decision
When faced with a myriad of options, humans panic and shut down rather than relish in the fact that there are alternatives. Too much choice does not equal freedom, but anxiety and paralysis. Decisions are either put off or never finalized, as more research is required to ensure the correct path is chosen.
2. Less satisfaction with the outcome
Once the decision is finally made, people are less satisfied with their choice. Because of the more options they initially had, it is easier to imagine an even better option exists. People regret their choice even if their choice was the best.
3. Escalation of Expectations
Due to the number of options, people’s expectations escalate. If we have so many choices, one of them must be perfect. Higher levels of expectations ultimately lead to less satisfaction.
After experiencing low satisfaction the blame goes back to you. After all, you were the one who had all these choices, and you made the wrong decision, which is why you are not content.
Therefore, Schwartz concludes that too much choice has left us feeling more dissatisfied and less happy than before. His solution is not that there should be no choice, however there is an unknown balance between too little and too much which must be met. Choice must neither be too restrictive, nor limitless. Knowing the above four common outcomes, helps one to break out of this vicious cycle and move on.
Furthermore, as Muslims, we have other devices to combat the anxiety that comes with too much choice in our everyday lives:
1. Satisfaction of the body and soul
Remember that true satisfaction of the heart only comes through the obedience and worship of Allāh alone. Allāh states in the Qurʾān,
“Those who have believed and whose hearts are assured by the remembrance of Allāh . Unquestionably, by the remembrance of Allāh hearts are assured.” (13:28)
Not being content may not necessarily mean there is something lacking in our material surroundings, but could very well be our internal, spiritual well-being is neglected.
2. Natural predisposition
Remember that, as humans, we have a predisposition to desire what is bigger and better. The Prophet stated,
“If the son of Adam had a valley of gold, he will desire another valley of gold. He will never be satisfied until he gets dust (i.e. death)” (Sahih Muslim).
This world is not designed for our full satisfaction, but designed to be a testing ground for the next life. It is in our nature to desire more, and this is part of our test to control and focus on our ultimate mission: worship Allāh and attain Jannah.
We must put things into perspective. Constantly in the Qurʾān, Allāh reminds us that the life of this world is short and to not be deluded.
“The mutual rivalry for piling up (good things in this world) diverts you (from the more serious things.”[102:1]
When put into perspective, this life is not worth it. Therefore, go with the decision that gives you more reward. Or if it is a mubah act, (either decision does not earn reward) then, in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter.
Last but not least: du’ā. In fact, for decisions big or small, Allāh has given us a special du’ā’ called istikhāra. Many articles and lectures have been dedicated to explaining this du’ā’. An important point most people forget is that istikhāra is not just for major decisions such as marriage, but should be used for any and every decision.
In conclusion, being aware of Schwartz’s four emotions when we are faced with too many options helps us to overcome these feelings. Moreover, as Muslims we must remember that satisfaction and serenity ultimately lie in the worship of Allāh and living according to the boundaries outlined by Him.
Posted by: Hira Amin