To have limitless choices is naturally something that we as human beings, born with a free will, will see as the ideal situation. But is it ideal?

21st century life and making choices go hand in hand. The increasing number of consumer products is one obvious example. You might be in need of a new toothbrush but you are probably not prepared for what you will see on the shop shelves. With the variety of toothbrushes available in brand, style and technology, you are required to think through the options and your own needs and taste. If you don’t know what it is, you are expected to develop a need and taste as reference for the choice you are about to make. If you have your family with you, your partner in a hurry to get to the next shop and children shouting and running up and down the aisle, the exercise can be become more stressful than what you planned for.

It is evident that more spendable money translates into more choices and potentially more stress. In a free society with the focus on the individual and his expanding range of choices in terms of what he will do as work, how he will spend his free time, buy as service or product, watch on television, read, smell, taste, feel or listen to, most people are faced with an increasing number of choices. As much as it is something to celebrate, if we compare it with the limited choices of the Middle Ages, it has a downside. Choices are stressful and anxiety-provoking – what have I lost by making this, and not another, choice? Will I not regret my decision? We make ourselves believe that we are failures if we don’t make the best choices in everything we do – if buying stuff is part and parcel of the modern lifestyle, then at least we need to make good choices when doing so.

Having to choose between many options, from the mundane to the weighty life-decisions, can become more complex and confusing. Instead of clarity, clear purpose and simplicity, we get cluttered minds, indecision and restlessness. The more we are bombarded with information the more we experience the need to analyse and simplify. It does not happen automatically and demands our time, concentration and effort. Time and energy we often feel we don’t have. We inevitably look for short-cuts and ways to relieve the intensity. Since there are no right or wrong in all these decisions, the complexity of life with so many choices becomes exhausting. The result being that we often give up on earlier commitments and goals. We lose focus on what we actually believe is important and what we really want. Instead, we placate ourselves by seeing everything at the same level of unimportance, or else, make many silly mistakes in an effort to release the tension. We lose interest in discerning the essence from the peripheral. The mere fact that we have many choices before us can paralyse us to indecision and non-action. More serious is the consequence of losing a sense of inner control and being centered.

How free are we really if we are constantly told what our needs are supposed to be and how this or the other product or service will satisfy them? One might say that, as consumers, we are forced to develop new needs or else regress to earlier states of backwardness and depression. However, since they seldom are real needs, one often first buys and then feel the obligation to use the product – until the feeling subsides in the light of new rationalisations. ‘Guilt’ plays a significant role, sometimes in motivating us to buy (exercise equipment to get slim and fit is an obvious case in point) and sometimes in the failure of keeping the commitments we made to ourselves (using the equipment as planned).

In a consumer society, the more we desire, the better. It follows that ‘gratitude’ and ‘contentment’ become strange and rather inappropriate concepts. We constantly tell ourselves that we still need to acquire this or the other product. The thought that we might just fail in finishing the task as we see it for today, missing an item on the buying list with friends or family visiting, leaves us anxious and stressed.

Many choices may be a sign of our freedom and development, but what we see is not only the freedom to do and enjoy many different things, but the power of addiction and unhealthy habits due to external influences. Do we fully appreciate the gift of our free will to live more self-aware and break out of some of the negative cycles we often find ourselves in?