Growing up in China, we didn’t have the luxury of choices. During the Cultural Revolution, everyone wore the same colors (gray or blue), same hairstyle and lived with scarcity. When I left the country in 1988, the situation was improving but options were still few. In the department stores, there might be a couple of varieties of toothpaste, hand towels or candies. If you entered a clothing store and asked to see something (fitting wasn’t allowed), you’d be greeted with a disgusted look from the gal sitting behind the counter. And if you chose not to buy after all, she’d certainly feel entitled to assault you with some nasty remarks “I bet someone looking like you doesn’t have the money to buy this. What a waste of time!”

Shortly after I arrived in New York, Joe took me to Woolworths to buy a hair dryer. I was blown away by the huge display of different types. But at the same time I felt overwhelmed and frustrated with the choice I had to make. It would have been much easier to just pick up the one and only kind in the store. I ended up buying a low-end Cornell hair dryer that I didn’t like very much in comparison to all the other fancier ones. But I was money conscious.

The dogma of today’s society is that freedom leads to happiness, and the more choices people have, the more freedom. But is there really a strong positive correlation between happiness and choices?

Researchers handed camera gears to Harvard students and asked them to take as many pictures as they wanted in the next few days. Then one group of the students (Group A) were asked to choose one picture and mail it out that day to be part of a display. Once they made the choice, there would be no turning back. The other group (Group B) was given the same instruction except that the researchers would hold the pictures for three days. So the students in Group B could change their mind in the next few days.

The students in both groups were asked how satisfied they were with their decisions later on. Group A reported higher level of satisfaction than group B.

When companies increase their employees’ 401K investment choices from a few to a few dozen, participation drops significantly. People delay decision making for fear of making the wrong one. So they let days and months go by with inaction, all the while spending the money they should have saved and losing their employers’ fabulous match. On the other hand, for those who do their homework and adjust their investment strategy carefully, the return will be greater.

So choice is both a good and a bad thing. Many people feel paralyzed by the explosion of choices they face every day. Frequently good decisions are followed by regret because from hindsight the alternatives look even better. Have you ever wanted to pinch yourself for selling a stock too soon even though you’ve made thousands on it?

With growing choices also come unrealistic expectations, which is a happiness robber. If there is only one option and things don’t go right, you blame ‘them’. But if you choose wrong, there is nobody to blame but yourself. So choices can potentially lead to disappointment and self-blame.

In simple and rational terms, the Expected Value of a Choice = (Odds of Gain) x (Value of Gain). We humans are very poor at assessing the odds and the value. For example if we really understood the odds of winning the lotto, we’d never have bought any lottery tickets. But the images of smiling winners trick us to forget the millions who walk away empty-handed. And too many times we put too much value on things that are not worthy.

I go about life’s decisions, big and small, following my gut and it has served me well. After all at the age of sixteen when I met Joe for the first time, I had this instinct that he would make a terrific husband for me. I was right! Joe on the other hand, is extremely logical and has to go through an exhausted list of options before reaching any decision. It used to be a point of contention between us because my gut was often overridden by his reasoning. We’ve learned to turn this conflicting combination into a strength rather than a weakness. I am more willing to hear him out and he is more inclined to take reasonable risks. Together we are making better decisions and are happier with each other and the outcome.

It is hard to avoid regret, self-blame and unreasonable expectations when the number of choices becomes overwhelming. But if we incline our mind to the positive of past decisions, allow ourselves to be satisfied with good instead of perfect decisions, and getting wiser with weighing the odds and values, we are more likely to make better choices and be happier.