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Why freedom of choice can make us unhappy

Why freedom of choice can make us unhappy

“When I choose I lose.” This pithy, zenlike aphorism from my teacher Sri Chinmoy had me raise my eyebrows the first time I read it. Now, sixteen years of meditation practice later, I’m able to appreciate its wisdom so much more. I have given up making choices, and can honestly say to be happier for it.


Instead of going through the anxiety of the decision making process, endlessly weighing pros and cons and often ending up feeling dissatisfied with the outcome, I take a step back and allow life to choose for me. Life’s choices are so much better than my own. I’ve never felt dissatisfied with them.

Abandoning this choosing process is a spiritual practice Sri Chinmoy terms ‘surrender’. The inner result is always happiness, even if the outcome of the choice is not outwardly pleasant or rewarding. “A surrender-life will eventually be crowned with Infinity’s Joy,” Sri Chinmoy writes.

Now science is backing this spiritual insight with evidence. Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has discovered that if we are forced to accept a situation that is not of our own choosing, our brain adapts itself to it and makes the situation seem pleasant to us. To illustrate his point Gilbert quoted an ex-convict who spent 37 years in jail and on release said the experience had been ‘glorious’ and he wouldn’t want to have missed it.


To prove his point further Gilbert conducted an experiment where he asked students from his university to take twelve photo’s, select the two best ones and develop them into prints. He then told the students that they could take one of their two prints home, but that the university needed the other one for their archives. To the first group of students he said that they had to make a choice then and there, and select the photograph they wanted to keep for themselves. To the other group he said that they could always swap the pictures later if they were dissatisfied with their choice. He then asked the students to rate their happiness with the picture they chose five days later. It turned out that the students who could not swap their pictures were very happy with their choice, whereas the students who had been offered the possibility to undo their choice were profoundly unhappy.


Gilbert concluded that contrary to what we think, free choice is often a cause of dissatisfaction, whereas absence of choice triggers our brain into a state of happy acceptance. He called this “synthetic happiness”, since it is created by the brain in response to a situation it did not voluntarily choose. “Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for,” Gilbert said.

To me it sounds a lot like the joy of surrender Sri Chinmoy spoke of.


For a life-changing experience, read Sri Chinmoy’s book The Jewels of Happiness. Timeless truths, easy-to-follow meditation exercises and sound spiritual advice from a truly enlightened author. Check it out now!
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