“We laud our almost boundless freedom of choice as if it were a good thing per se, irrespective of what the choice is between. This is of course absurd because any rational person would prefer to choose between two good things rather than between a thousand bad ones. But, under these circumstances, how do we decide what not to choose? How do we discipline the will to help us master the art of self-restraint?
Decide when to make a choice
Don’t make everything in life a situation where you have to choose. That would be mentally exhausting. In most situations, you should fall back on habit and routine. There is nothing wrong with acting in a routine manner. A life without habit and routine would be unbearable.
Convince yourself that the idea that ‘ only the best is good enough’ is nonsense
When something is good enough, it’s good enough. If you are always chasing the best, happiness will elude you. In fact, the very idea of ‘the best’ often leads to despair, because whatever is considered best one year may be hopelessly old-fashioned the next. If only the best is good enough, then nothing is ever particularly good.
Make your decisions irreversible
Agonising over where your love is ‘the real thing’ or your sexual relationship is above or below par, and wondering whether you could have done it better is a prescription for misery. A lot of decisions should not be reversed – even if we have the opportunity- especially when they involve obligations that concern our relationships with others.
Easier said than done, but important nonetheless. Refer to Kierkegard’s thoughts on the Lily and the Bird for further inspiration.
Expect to be hooked
The hedonic treadmill is the concept or idea that we revert back to our given ‘level of happiness’ soon after a desirable event has happened. Acknowledging this allows us to protect ourselves from disappointment when it transpires that buying a particular car, or holiday home or falling in love with a new partner fails to elicit the profound and everlasting sense of happiness that we expected.
Resist the urge to compare
Human beings may well find it hard ot resist comparing themselves to others, but being aware of this tendency may at least keep it in check. Yes the grass is always greener on the other side – but maybe you should mow your own lawn and play with the kids instead of spending time staring over the fence at the neighbour’s garden. Challenge the kind of snobbery that proclaims that only certain things or ideas are good enough or worthy of pursuing. I can exclusively reveal that I like the cheapest nougat ice-cream from the supermarket, and that one of the ‘best meals’ I have ever had was a simple foccacia from a 7-Eleven, partaken of at a bus stop one night on my way home from a party. It had the perfect combination of fat, salt and umami that my body needed right then and there. Less really can be more!
Learn to live with limitations
The idea that we should use our will to practise wanting less is a paradox. Making do with less requires a strong will. Is it really possible to do this? To become ascetic enough to resist the tempting and boundless world? Perhaps instead we should focus on the broader cultural landscapes, organisations, technologies, homes and families that surround us.
Svend Brinkmann is a Danish Professor of Psychology in the Department of Communication and Psychology at Aalborg University, Denmark. He serves as a co-director of the Center for Qualitative Studies and is the author of ‘The Joy of Missing Out’ and ‘Stand Firm’.