When it comes to considering the role of choice in our lives it would seem the supermarket has become a popular, if unoriginal, metaphor. As frustrated trips to the supermarket have taught us, too much choice is bad – it is time-consuming, often bewildering and exhausting. Yet most would agree that to have no choice is worse. We don’t want to just accept whatever we are given, the power and autonomy involved in selecting and making decisions has become a fundamental human right, and justifiably so. Choice, in general is good.
Choice is a word that is now ubiquitous in government policy. Individuals – patients, women, whomever – are granted choice and their ability to choose is paramount. Because when we have choice we have autonomy and thus empowerment, or so the logic goes. As David Cameron has remarked, when people are given more control over their lives, when they are made to feel as if they are the “authors of their own destiny”, their sense of self-worth and well-being increases. But what happens when we prioritise choice? Does it lead to the autonomy we desire?
When it comes to our happiness and making our lives happier, choice is surely crucial. A new initiative called ‘The Happiness Challenge’ which has been featured on BBC Breakfast this past week claims happiness is determined by our own behaviours and attitudes. As the booklet states:
We often think that our circumstances – where we live, what we have, what we earn and so on – have a big effect on how happy we are. However, these things tend to have much less impact than most people expect. Instead, research suggests that a big part of how happy we are is determined by our attitude and choices, rather than our circumstances. So we have an opportunity to make ourselves and others happier by the way we approach our lives and the actions we choose to take.
(The Happiness Challenge produced for BBC Breakfast by Action for Happiness and Mindscape)
Here we can see that our choices – our choice of behaviour and action – determine happiness. Happiness is a choice that we can realise regardless of our circumstances; ‘our circumstances’ presumably referring to material, economic and social circumstances. But how precisely we are to make choices apart from our circumstances is a curious idea. Our choices are always mired in the daily vital realities of living with and amongst human, mortal bodies; of being entrenched in cultural norms and traditions. Even as we may have become untied from traditional roles our choices remain entangled. Freedom from tradition does not mean that we obtain free choice but simply that the choices become different.
Choice becomes problematic when it is disembedded from the social context it belongs, as it presumes choice is available to all people at all times, glossing over in a rather horrific way the inescapably real social inequalities that persist in society. As Annemarie Mol (1) describes, “By making choices, or so the logic of choice claims, we become the masters of our own lives. This promise of mastery however hides what it costs to reshape the world in a way that ‘situations of choice’ are created”. When choice is endowed with the power to transcend categories it neglects the ‘situatedness’ of choice. Further it hides how choice is often an opportunity of privilege.
Being able to make us happy is one of the great explanatory powers that choice has been weighted with. Though of course if choice has the power to bring happiness, wealth and cure cancer, it equally has the power to bring unhappiness, poverty and tumours. Well more or less equally depending on your strength of will. The dark side to the ‘freedom’ of choice is that the individual is burdened with the responsibility of their choices and the blame if they experience failure. And it seems humans do tend to fail quite a bit. So much so that even the government has realized that repeatedly telling the public not to do something; people will continue to do it. Because well people cannot be trusted with their choices. As Mark Williamson from (director of Action for Happiness) has pointed out “we often don’t do the things we ought”. To remedy this dilemma the government has assembled a ‘behavioural insights team’ to uncover the unconscious drives that inform our decisions and use incentives to ‘nudge’ our behaviours into the correct way.
Autonomous decision making has yielded considerable costs to society’s collective sense of well-being as Matthew Taylor details: “we’ve made a set of decisions individually which lead aggregately to a big problem of loneliness which is one of the major drives on unhappiness”. A strange paradox has thus appeared where individual choice and subjective wants are considered an unequivocal good but are being simultaneously undermined by claims that the choices individuals have made are wrong, and subsequently that they require shaping and manipulating into the right choices. But does not an autonomous individual has the liberty to make whatever choice they desire? Instead right and wrong choices emerge and the autonomy to choose only extends as far as you are making the right choices. And that is ‘right’ as determined by current government policy.
It has been argued that more choice leads to increased anxiety; an abundance of choice muddies and confuses our thinking and we cannot be the rational individuals that autonomy demands. Yet we would benefit by fixing our gaze on not what there is to choose from but the logic that requires us to choose. We fail in our decisions not only because we have no power over what we can choose from but because there is no longer the opportunity to question why we should choose. How can we realize autonomy when we do not have control over the decisions that determine the choices we have?
This is merely an illusion of autonomy where we are encouraged to ‘feel’ as though we are the masters of our own lives; to ‘feel’ independent. But in real terms the control and power we possess can remain limited. Worse we become convinced that we need not involve ourselves in the battle for re-envisioning autonomy but instead achieve a certain moral superiority through techniques such as mindfulness (or for the more old-fashioned: drugs and alcohol) that brainwash us into believing we have freed ourselves from the bind.
Next week: Is mindfulness better described as brainwashing?
*ALSO possible special film review of Black Swan*