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Positive Psychology in Practice: Promoting Human Flourishing in Work, Health, Education, and Everyday Life, 2nd Edition by Stephen Joseph

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Chapter 8The Paradox of Choice

BARRY SCHWARTZ

Western societies are guided by a set of assumptions about well-being that is so deeply embedded in most of us that we don't realize either that we make these assumptions or that there is an alternative. The assumptions can be stated in the form of a rough syllogism:

  1. The more freedom and autonomy people have, the greater their well-being.
  2. The more choice people have, the greater their freedom and autonomy.
  3. Therefore, the more choice people have, the greater their well-being.

It is hard to quarrel—either logically or psychologically—with this syllogism. The moral importance of freedom and autonomy is self-evident, and the psychological importance of freedom and autonomy is now amply documented (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 2000, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Seligman, 1975; see also Brown & Ryan, Chapter 9, this volume). There is also no denying that choice improves the quality of people's lives. It enables people to control their destinies and to come close to getting exactly what they want out of any situation. Choice is essential to autonomy, which is absolutely fundamental to well-being. Healthy people want and need to direct their own lives. And whereas many needs are universal (food, shelter, medical care, social support, education, and so on), much of what people need if they are to flourish is highly individualized. Choice is what enables each person to pursue precisely those objects and activities that best satisfy his or her own preferences ...

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