Free from tyranny of choice

I dislike having too many choices.

I find that the more choices I am given, the less enthusiastic I feel about them.

Take music, for example. When I was young and had a modest collection of a few dozen albums, I rarely had any difficulty finding something to listen to.

But now that I subscribe to a music-streaming service and have instant access to millions of songs, I browse listlessly through the choices, indifferent to them all.

Many of those well-worn albums from my youth became intimate companions. I came to treasure every song, every note, every lyric.

Nowadays, I skip skittishly from track to track and rarely establish an intimate connection with anything.

It is the same with TV. I recently subscribed to a video-on-demand service that offers thousands of viewing options.

But, paradoxically, now that I have more TV choices, I cannot find anything that I want to watch.

It seems that the more choices I am offered, the choosier, and more dissatisfied, I become.


I am not alone in feeling this way.

In his 2010 book, The Good Life: 30 Steps To Perfecting The Art Of Living, the psychotherapist and writer Mark Vernon recounts how he once ordered eggs and toast in a cafe.

By the time the waitress had asked him to choose between poached eggs, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs and fried eggs, and between white bread, brown bread, rye bread and wholemeal bread, he had quite lost his appetite.

He echoes my sentiments when he writes: "If there are too many choices, you can spend a whole life flitting from one thing to the next. It's not until you commit to something that you actually enjoy it."


Vernon talks about the 20th- century Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, who said something very interesting on this subject. Namely, that in the modern world, we are so bewildered and overwhelmed by choices that the only way we can find freedom and contentment is to temporarily limit them, to voluntarily give some of them up for a time.

This is an intriguing idea. It reminds me of the advice the first-century Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger gave in one of his Moral Letters to Lucius.

He wrote: "Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: Is this the condition that I feared?"

Seneca's idea was that by practising doing without things - fine food, expensive clothing and the like - we can reduce the stress in our lives. We can see that if we should fall upon hard times, we can manage without them.

But it occurs to me that it is also a great way of freeing oneself, for a time, from the tyranny of choice.

I have tried it a few times recently. I have set aside periods of time when I drink nothing more luxurious than green tea and eat nothing more luxurious than beans and vegetables.

Seneca had a point.

Doing without latte and croissant takes a bit of willpower, but it does not materially affect the quality of my days. I am thinking of testing this in other ways. Perhaps a Netflix-free month or a Spotify-free week, or even a no-electronic-entertainment- whatsoever weekend.

• Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer. His new book, Walking With Plato, is out at major bookshops here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Free from tyranny of choice'. Print Edition | Subscribe