We’ve all heard the expression, “Be careful what you ask for …” That came to mind recently as I was reading a scientific journal.
It was an article about how free choice does not result in happiness. It talked about how in American culture and in our philosophy of democracy, one of the essential ingredients of “the pursuit of happiness” is having freedom of choice.
The authors of the study concluded that having freedom of choice is not an essential ingredient of happiness, and in fact, it may result in less happiness.
They never defined what they mean by happiness, but they did put forth the notion that choice, in addition to whatever empowering effect it might have, can also produce a numbing uncertainty, depression and selfishness. The implication is that these qualities are indicative or symptomatic of the opposite of happiness.
It reminded me of a situation I’ve encountered in work environments, where I was someone’s supervisor. In accordance with my own tastes and tendencies, I kept things pretty relaxed and informal. In issuing assignments and coordinating projects, I focused more on the goals and the objectives than I did on the procedures, figuring I was allowing people the freedom, and giving them the respect of working it out in their own way, within the general framework of compliance.
What I found out was that most people did not appreciate the lack of specific direction. On the contrary, it contributed to their stress.
This is an example of freedom of choice not resulting in happiness.
I heard it described in another way this past week, at an author’s convention. During her talk to a group of grade-school students, one of the authors said, “If someone tells you to sit down and write a story, you might go, ‘All right, what do I write about?’ and sit there, paralyzed, unable to come up with anything. But if someone says write a story about a girl, who’s 13 years old, who lives in the mountains,” then you have something to go on, and you’ll likely be able to come up with something.”
Once again, the point is that less freedom of choice might actually lead to greater happiness, since, for a writer, happiness comes from writing.
The researchers said if freedom of choice is an essential component of happiness, then 95 percent of the world is going to be shut out from happiness, since free choice is not really part of their culture, or their history, or their political system.
I thought of India and China, and thought, if not freedom of choice, then what — and the word that came to mind was “service.”
Wise men and women throughout the ages have told us, in different ways and with various words, that the key to happiness is service, and the only people who find real happiness are the ones who seek and find how to serve.
My own life experiences have proved over and over again how good it feels to do things for others. For instance, sometimes we organize fundraisers for friends or others who are in need. You see all these people come together, and donate their time and their talent and their money, and you go, wow, this is really cool that we can do this to help out the person or the people in need.
Then you find out you’re deriving all kinds of benefits that you hadn’t even imagined going in.
As there are many different ways to define happiness, similarly, there are many different ways to serve. There’s community service, military service, customer service, civil service, spiritual service, and myriad other ways to help. And the more you help, the better it feels.
Getting back to the matter of choice as it relates to happiness, I was thinking about it in terms of team sports. It doesn’t matter what sport, if the team is to execute successfully — which equates to happiness — then each player has to do his or her particular job. You can’t just go wherever and do whatever you want. You have to do your assignment in order for the team to achieve its goals. This is another example of how less freedom of choice results in greater happiness.
It’s an age-old debate, and maybe it really is a matter of choice — between happiness and freedom.
Ron Colone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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