Are we unhappy because we suffer from a lack of choice or because we’re overwhelmed with choice?
Since high school, when I impulsively picked up a book on summaries of major philosophical thought, I’ve always be interested in existentialism. At its essence, it’s the belief that we always have the freedom to make a choice — no matter how terrific or terrible our circumstances are.
For example, prisoners of war still possess choice: submit to rule, negotiate, commit suicide, resist in a non-violent manner, or counter-attack. None of these options are ideal, but no one can force you to choose one over the other.
Fortunately, if you’re reading this then it’s unlikely you’re not in that situation. Instead, for most of us, our choices involve where we spend our money, how we earn our living, who we build a home with, and how we treat our health.
Jean-Paul Sartre believed that we are personally responsible for every choice that we make. The weight of this amazing responsibility, however, scares us rather than empowers us, which leads to a lot of inner anguish.
Overwhelmed with choice, we seek (and create) external moral systems to follow — values, principles, religion, etc. This relieves some of the anxiety that we experience knowing that our life is totally within our hands.
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
Sartre describes a concept called, ‘mauvaise foi’ (“bad faith”):
“The habit that people have of deceiving themselves into thinking that they do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making that choice.”
We end up stuck in situations that make us unhappy, especially when it comes to our careers. We convince ourselves that we are unable to switch jobs because of something or other. We tell ourselves that we need the false sense of security of an employment contract that says those two magic words: “permanent, full-time.”
Of course, that’s not true. These are only stories that we tell ourselves.
We don’t actually know that if we change careers whether it’ll end terribly or whether it’ll pay off and we double or income.
We don’t actually know whether or not our current employment will end tomorrow in one unexpected meeting with HR.
We don’t know the outcome of anything, but we act like we are without choice.
We refuse to believe that we have plenty of choices because we’re afraid of the potential consequences in making choices that actually feel true to us.
Sartre’s concept of ‘bad faith’ is akin to Heidegger’s concept of “fallenness.” Part of fallenness involves this notion of “ambiguity”:
When an individual is resigned to their circumstances and fails to actualize their choices so as to lead a more authentic life. When one’s life is ambiguous, there is a lack of purpose and direction that will help them live in a manner authentic to their true selves.
Now, I’m not a sophisticated philosopher; I’m simplifying two incredibly complex concepts.
However, I think about these difficult questions all the time within the context of my own life:
- Am I making decisions that align with my authentic self?
- Is my behaviour in my professional life and in my personal life fundamentally congruent?
- Do I hold myself accountable for my present circumstances or am I placing blame on something — or someone — else?
This is a hard pill to swallow for me.
As a lawyer at a legal aid clinic, it’s easy for me to see the faults in our economic system. It doesn’t take a genius to see who disproportionately (in an ethnic and racial sense) makes up most of the minimum-wage population. Of course, we can argue that most of them possess a choice: work a grueling, low-wage job or receive social assistance and barely make ends meet. Sartre may say so, but are those really choices?
To reconcile this in my head, it makes sense to believe that everyone possesses choices, no matter how shitty the choices are. And so for the privileged few, such as myself, it only feels right (and fair) that we speak up and, if possible, improve the quality of choices for the hard-pressed. No one should be forced to choose between subjecting themselves to a toxic work environment and putting food on the table for their family. But, I think it would be preposterous to suggest that we have some moral obligation to make sure that everyone can choose between a Tesla and a Ferrari.
But for those of us lucky to identify as middle class, we have less shitty choices: we can decide whether to order take-out or cook at home, stay in our job or try our hand elsewhere, leave our significant other or attempt to mend the relationship. We are spoiled with choice. Yet we remain paralyzed.
To live in alignment with our authentic self is to acknowledge our personal freedom, as well as ensuing responsibility.
I think Omar Bradley, decorated war veteran, said it best:
“This is as true in everyday life as it is in battle: we are given one life and the decision is ours whether to wait for circumstances to make up our mind, or whether to act, and in acting, to live.”
I recognize that this is easier said than done. But nothing worthwhile ever is.
It’s easy to follow the pack. Participate in the rat race. Savour your defined benefit pension plan. Wait for your one-way ticket to retirement. And if that’s your ideal life, then that’s fine. But that possibly can’t satisfy everyone. It doesn’t satisfy me. I want to a live a life of purpose now.
I don’t want to wait until I’m fifty or sixty years old to do work that challenges me. I don’t want to wait until I have x amount of money in order to pursue my interests. I don’t want to qualify my happiness in the name of responsibility. As Ryan Holiday reinforces: You could leave life right now. Nothing is guaranteed.
I’m not saying that you should quit your job with no back-up plan on how to provide for your family, but I am saying — nay, shouting — that we all bear an expiry date.
Life is too precious to waste being inauthentic — it’s an utter disservice to yourself and to those who care for you.
It’s tough to go against the grain, but by god it’s worth it.
Once we accept that our happiness starts with the choices that we make for ourselves, the sooner we can start living a clear, unambiguous life.