At the risk of forever being quoted out of context on social media, legal documents, and eulogies: I, Mark Hill, think freedom is overrated. Don't get me wrong -- it has its perks. If George Washington hadn't invented it, I wouldn't be writing this while wearing a Wookiee bathrobe and testing the limits of my neighbor's endurance with a blaring 10-hour loop of "Work Bitch."
But, as bumper stickers and racist uncles keep reminding us, freedom isn't free. And while this is usually in reference to soldiers sacrificing themselves in the line of duty or my heroic decision to tolerate people who like cilantro, our struggles with freedom sometimes manifest themselves in subtler ways.
#4. We're Still Getting Used To Making Big Decisions
You're going to make a lot of choices today, none wiser than deciding to read this. But choice is a concept we're still adjusting to. For countless centuries after we slew the dinosaurs that God placed on Earth as a test of faith in our combat skills, what you did in life was largely determined by the circumstances you were born into. If your father was a farmer, fisherman, or village idiot, the odds were pretty good that you'd grow up to be the same. You would marry someone from the same town, either because your family arranged it or because who do you think you are visiting? A neighboring town to troll for strange, Christopher fucking Columbus? Then you'd pump out some kids, because not wanting to have children was a sin worthy of being placed in the stocks and pelted with rancid vegetables. (Note: My entire understanding of the Middle Ages comes from Monty Python-esque comedies)
I'm glossing over large swaths of human history, and we could all think of dozens of counterexamples, like the well-known fact that Napoleon worked his way up from being a male prostitute to become the mayor of France. But generally the average person today is forced to make far, far more decisions than they would have as little as 60 years ago.
It takes me hours just to do a cost-benefit analysis on eyeliner brands.
I'm not just talking about choosing between 827 varieties of potato chips at Subway (technically 826, because fuck dill pickle and anyone who enjoys it). I mean big, life-changing decisions, like choosing a city to live in or a video game console to own. Never getting married, never having children, and marrying children are all valid options now (the last one isn't yet, but now that gay marriage is legal it's only a matter of time, right?). You can earn three degrees and change careers eight times, and no one will bat an eye. You can make peace with the dragons that have plagued your village rather than fight them like your ancestors, and your reward will be a feel-good documentary instead of banishment.
Again, this is not a bad thing. Many of the careers and relationships our ancestors were stuck with were unenviable, to put it mildly. But while we've become pretty good at making decisions, we're still struggling at living with them. You probably know at least one person who brands him- or herself as a life coach, and that person is probably insufferable. Life-coaching has only been around in earnest for a couple of decades, because, well, just try to imagine a life coach in a previous era. "Try not to get shot by communist revolutionaries during your 12-hour factory shift." "Hey, you know typhoid? Yeah, don't get it." It's not the sort of advice worth shelling out money for.
"I know you're not happy with your life right now, but have you considered toughing out
another 20 years of backbreaking serfdom?"
But, as one coach points out, his clients come to him well after making a big decision. They didn't have trouble making it, but they had trouble dealing with the consequences. A no doubt related fact is that increased choice has coincided with decreased well-being and happiness. Happiness is a complicated subject, and saying that it stems entirely from freedom of choice is like saying your headaches stem entirely from the mind-control chemicals the government sprays out of streetlights. There are many factors, but a big one is that ...
#3. We're Constantly Questioning Our Choices
Because we're still getting used to constantly making big decisions, we end up with nagging doubts about whether we made the right call. It's not that our decision made us unhappy; it's that we can't help but wonder if another decision would have made us even happier. But don't let my rambling neuroses do the talking -- science will back me up. Give employees more options for their 401(k), something I'm told is better for your finances than stuffing all your money in the vegetable crisper, and they'll be overwhelmed and not enroll. Participation rates are higher when options are fewer.
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And yet, my "You'll eat what I goddamn give you, you ingrates" restaurant never took off.
It's one thing to get so panicked by the number of options at the barber that you shave your head and lie about having cancer for 30 years, but this is a dilemma that manifests itself in much crueler ways. Let's talk about a topic that's always sure-fire comedy gold: terminally ill infants. A study compared American parents, who have to explicitly decide to end life-sustaining treatment, to French parents, whose doctors make the call unless the parents say otherwise. Despite both groups suffering awful tragedies, the French parents handled the emotional fallout better and were left with fewer lingering regrets about what could or should have been.
"So you're saying we should let the government decide what we do with our money and children? What are you, a depressed communist?" I am, but that's not the point. We're constantly worrying about whether we could have done better instead of accepting what we earned. You may have heard of the Fear Of Missing Out, which is when we log on to Facebook, see that Chad hosted a kegger without inviting us, and are left wondering what other fun things everyone else is doing behind our back. That line of thinking can be extended well beyond fucking Chad and his dumb party for jerks that probably sucked shit anyway.
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"They're the ones missing out on my awesome birthday party."
Whether it's when you're picking a college, buying a home, or clubbing a woman from a rival clan and declaring her your spouse, we're chasing a perfection that doesn't exist outside of '80s sitcoms and creepy families in commercials. The question isn't "Am I happy?" but "How can I be happier?" And then the next thing you know you're abandoning your loving family and shacking up with some floozy half your age on a beach in Tahiti in a futile attempt to recapture your fleeting youth, to invent a totally random example off the top of my head, Uncle Steve.
As Will Smith and some old, outdated document that everyone keeps arguing over taught us, it's good to pursue happiness. But we have these regrets about our decisions even when they were logically sound. It's understandable to be upset if you buy a house and learn the real-estate agent didn't disclose that the basement hid a Black Gate to the Realm Of Infinite Shrieking Skeletons. But there's no way you could have known they lied, and that's the problem. We equate endless choice with total control over results. If you painstakingly choose from a dozen job offers, you expect it to be the best job ever. But no matter how careful you are, you can't prevent the economy from collapsing and wiping your carefully selected dream job out of existence.
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"I can't believe there's no longer a market for professional cardboard box carriers."
It's a vicious cycle. Choosing from so many options causes us anxiety, and when the decision goes awry thanks to factors beyond our control, we regret the call we made, blame ourselves, and feel guilty for wasting an opportunity, and we double down on anxiety for the next big decision. Or we hedge our bets and avoid the decision altogether, but that creates its own problem ...