Recently I was the victim of a robbery. Prior to this, I was debating if I wanted to leave my city. I’ve grown increasingly tired of office work, and thanks to some recently accepted publications, I’ve wanted to look into funding to pursue independent research and apply for PhD programs. I had originally thought to continue working for a year while applying for funding and graduate programs. I have no insurance for my stolen items, making the loss somewhat more absolute and has pushed me to the point of my previous option of leaving to work on my own research, regardless of monetary concerns. Although there is a solid methodology behind my decisions, the interpretation of my options in regards to certain probabilistic outcomes can easily be interpreted as a type of fate or destiny.
I once had a Psychology professor tell his class that being a Psychologist or Social Worker wasn’t about telling people what to do with their lives, but rather showing people they had options. Often people feel trapped in their situation or trapped in patterns of negative thinking which can lead to anxiety and depression. If someone is unhappy with their career and feel there is no way to change course, a psychologist may tell a patient that he or she can take night courses and find assistance programs to help pay for courses or child care. If someone is locked in a pattern of self-harm, a social worker may lead that person though exercises that help an individual recognize strengths and positive traits in his or her life.
“I’ve lived long enough to learn too many choices can destroy a man.” -My Darling Sarah by Shane Koyczan
At the same time, and somewhat counter-intuitive, too many options can lead people to become unhappy with their decisions. Some parenting guides point out that allowing children to make some choices help with their development, but giving them too many choices can lead to disobedience2. But this isn’t limited to children. In 2004, Barry Schwartz published the book The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less asserting that even in adults, the over abundance of choice can lead to anxiety and stress. This directly contradicts common held beliefs that free and democratic societies with the abundance of choice will lead us to feel better about ourselves.
Dan Gilbert, a Harvard Psychology professor, discussed an experiment where students in a photography class were allowed to keep one of their works on completion of the course, while their second had to be given to the school for archive. The decision had to be made immediately. In another class, students were allowed to change which work they wanted to keep within a few days after submission. Students who had the option to change their submission were less happy with the work they decided to pick. The non-reversible decision forced people to be more happy with their outcome. However students said they preferred having the reversible option1.
“So here’s the final piece of this experiment. We bring in a whole new group of naive Harvard students and we say, ‘You know, we’re doing a photography course, and we can do it one of two ways. We could do it so that when you take the two pictures, you’d have four days to change your mind, or we’re doing another course where you take the two pictures and you make up your mind right away and you can never change it. Which course would you like to be in?’ Duh! 66 percent of the students, two-thirds, prefer to be in the course where they have the opportunity to change their mind. Hello? 66 percent of the students choose to be in the course in which they will ultimately be deeply dissatisfied with the picture.” –The surprising science of happiness, Dan Gilbert1
I’ve often known religious people to claim that they “felt lead” to certain life choices, whether it be moving to a new city or changing careers. When certain items become present due to chance or probability, a belief in a higher power can lead people to believe the circumstances culminate to an outcome. This seems like it’s a manifestation of the synthetic happiness that Dan Gilbert talks about in his research.
The people who robbed me took all my electronics, except a desktop computer with all my primary storage, research, photos and backup. They also happened to leave a Beagle Board, the embedded system I used for my research. My desktop was extremely heavy (it was originally a high performance server) and the Beagle Board doesn’t look very important to people stealing electronics they want to sell quickly around Christmas. These are logical reasons for these particular items to be left behind, but a belief in either fate or a higher power could lead one to conclude that these items were left due to a certain destiny or course to pursue.
” It turns out that freedom — the ability to make up your mind and change your mind — is the friend of natural happiness, because it allows you to choose among all those delicious futures and find the one that you would most enjoy. But freedom to choose — to change and make up your mind — is the enemy of synthetic happiness. … The psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped. This is the difference between dating and marriage, right? I mean, you go out on a date with a guy, and he picks his nose; you don’t go out on another date. You’re married to a guy and he picks his nose? Yeah, he has a heart of gold; don’t touch the fruitcake. Right? You find a way to be happy with what’s happened. … people don’t know this about themselves, and not knowing this can work to our supreme disadvantage. ” –The surprising science of happiness, Dan Gilbert1
The freedom of choice can lead us to make decisions that will make us happier. But the abundance of choice can sometimes leave us paralysed. We can be debilitated by regret because we don’t understand that the past is not reversible. We can not change the past and torture ourselves by wondering what could have been instead of accepting that the reality we are in, is the only possibility.
Those who define themselves by their faiths may interpreter the non-reversible choice as a path defined by some god or outside entity as part of their psychological immune system. But even as non-theist, I will admit the feeling of fate and destiny in my situation is a strong one, even though I don’t believe I’ve seen evidence to support a higher power. The idea of being led to an end feels like a natural response, even though I’m aware that I am responsibly for making these decisions and have done so in a rational way.
I’ve coped with the loss by putting the theft into perspective. I realize they were only possessions and material things and that I’ve had friends who have lost more wealth and possession through divorces, stock market adjustments and fires. I’m using the situation as justification for a desire I was contemplating. Some believe in fate or destiny or a higher power controlling our underlying circumstances, while others may view life as probability and chance providing the basis for our subconscious desires. Ultimately, if we truly possess free will, so long as we are free and not slaves, it is our will that ultimately directs our decisions in life.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost
1 The Surprising Science of Happiness. Dan Gilber. TED. Feb 2004.
2 Dealing with Disobedience. Triple P Positive Parenting Program. Retrieved 10 Dec 2014.