“Be decisive. Right or wrong, make a decision. The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.” -Unknown
It is ingrained into us that, as Americans, we have the freedom of choice. We have the freedom to choose how and where we can practice our religious beliefs. We have the freedom to choose which political candidate we want to vote for. A competitive free market allows us to choose what goods we want to buy, who supplies them, and to a certain, subconscious economic extent, at what prices they are available to us. Freedom of speech laws (for the most part, some speech is still restricted in the U.S.) allow us to choose what we want to say and how we wish we to express those thoughts.
Research from Cornell University indicates that adults make about 35,000 decisions per day, 226.7 of which are made on about food alone (" How Many Daily Decisions Do We Make?" 2018). We choose to nourish or harm our bodies with our diet. We choose what TV shows to watch, who our friends are, what car to drive, whether or not we feel like using our blinker, how many times we tell our parents we love them, whether or not we are going to walk the dog today, and how many cups of coffee we should or shouldn’t drink in one sitting. Cuba Gooding Jr. may have summarized the power of our decisions best when he said, “We all create our own reality by the choices we make.”
But what about the tough stuff? Not just who is going to pick up the kids from practice or if we are really going to have that second cupcake staring at us from the kitchen counter. What about making life or death decisions for a loved one? What about deciding to taking a job that you know will make you happier, but it pays $10,000 less than your current position? What about deciding whether or not it’s finally time to end a toxic relationship?
In my own life, I am facing a decision that will lead me down very different forks in my journey. This decision makes me think about how humans can make the best informed choices that we can when it comes to circumstances where time is not on our side, because let’s face it, time rarely is. The rest of this post sorts through the ways us humans make decisions, and the best ways we can make those choices based on research and science.
The Avenues, the Forks, the Roads, the Detours
Life does not and will not go as we plan. The choices we made in the past have ripple effects that change our present moments and our futures. Sometimes, life simply happens. We can rarely control our circumstances, but we can control our outcomes, choices, and coping mechanisms to help us heal and recover from the universe’s random hurdles.
There are six primary strategies that people use when it comes to making decisions: Impulsiveness, compliance, delegating, avoidance/deflection, balancing, and prioritizing/reflecting. While each strategy has its own advantages and disadvantages, the reality of our human condition is that we use a culmination of all of these strategies in order to make the right decisions for our lives (" How Many Daily Decisions Do We Make?" 2018). Just for a moment, I would like to change your perspective on the idea of “right and wrong.” Obviously, society functions off a set of laws that clearly outline what is right and wrong, and I’m not challenging those specific types of rules here. Furthermore, some of you reading this may have a religious or political code that you live by that makes certain difficult decisions- the decisions that live in the grey- more black and white; therefore, making your decisions easier to make. However, I acknowledge that there are those of us living life without these stark guidelines that make hard life choices less obvious.
So what does science say about our ability to make hard decisions? We first need to examine the concept of “adaptive capacity” within humans. This is understood as a system’s ability to respond to disruptions or challenges in their environment . From this ability stems a word with which we are all familiar: resilience. Science shows that the more resilient a system is before an important decision is made, the better they can cope with the impacts of that decision (i.e. taking a loved one off of life support, leaving an abusive partner, or taking a job that pays significantly less money) (Woods, 2017).
Yet, “adaptive capacity has limits or boundary conditions, and disruptions provide information about where those boundaries lie and how the system behaves when events push it near or over those boundaries (Woods, 2017),” so what do we do when our boundaries are tested? We know that certain neurotransmitters in our brain, such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, incentivize humans to make decisions based on rewards and pleasure responses. This exchange plays somewhat of a key role in making difficult, life changing choices, especially if we do not have much time to come to a decision ("Social Decision-Making and the Brain: A Comparative Perspective" 2017). However, the scientific jury is still out when it comes to the exact neuroscience behind making difficult choices.
This brings me back to the strategies we have in our decision-making tool box. With more simple choices we encounter, one alternative is seemingly better than the other. When it comes to the hard choices I’m writing about, one alternative has some positives, while the other alternative has positive aspects as well; neither is right or wrong, they are simply different. Two things I have learned to do while making teeth-gnashing choices in my life is to: 1. Listen to my intuition (or my gut) and 2. Try to avoid obsessing over the “what if” scenarios.
I am guilty of obsessively Googling when I find myself between a rock and a hard place. I want to read about other people’s experiences in my same situation and study what they do and why. I want to get the advice of my mom, my dad, my aunt, my best friends, my closest co-workers, and honestly, sometimes all of those voices echoing in my head makes my decision making process more cloudy and convoluted. As if I’m not obsessing over every “what if” that could be imagined, but now I have the echoing voices of a crowd of people that replay over and over in my mind. When I allow this to happen, it’s really hard to get a clear message that I know will always come from deep within my heart. A strong sense of self-trust is key here; it comes from experience, tough times, being kicked down by life, but always getting back on my feet. It’s the resilience that science says helps us make confident decisions.
For What Science Can’t Exactly Explain
While listening to a TED talk from Ruth Chang, a philosopher who specializes in studying hard choices, I was met with a sort of peace as she mirrored a concept I have been mulling over for the last three weeks. She states, “...I can tell you the fear of the unknown...rests on misconceptions of [hard choices]. It’s a mistake to think in hard choices, one alternative is really better than the other, but we’re too stupid to know which…” For me, this emphasizes the point that we cannot think of hard choices strictly in a concept of what is right and what is wrong. In this mental space, fear will paralyze us because as human beings, we generally believe that we are too small to make big choices that not only will affect our lives, but will quite possibly have a lasting effect on others too. “Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they’re hard because there is no best option...It’s here in the space of hard choices that we get to exercise our...power (Chang "How to make hard choices").”
As someone who categorizes herself as an overwhelmingly optimistic person, I have come to believe that hard choices are not something that we should be afraid of or something we should hit our heads against a wall about when we encounter them. I thoroughly believe that hard choices are the precise things that mold us into the people that we are meant to become. Maybe putting your pet down when you did moved you to adopt another dog that needed a loving home. Maybe choosing to move your elderly parent into your house to take care of them forced you to become a more patient and compassionate person. Perhaps leaving an abusive relationship moved you to empower other women and men in the same scenario. Maybe we are exactly where we need to be, and instead of fighting the course of our lives, we need to embrace it. Maybe these are opportunities to fully appreciate the messages that God, the Universe, Nature, the Divine is trying to share with you. Maybe these messages are gifts of empathy, forgiveness, encouragement, inspiration, confidence, growth, and wisdom.
I choose to think that on the other side of a hard decision is a breakthrough, a push towards the path that will serve us, and others, on our life’s journey. If anything, I hope this post encourages you to keep going, to not lose faith, no matter what you believe in, and to trust your intuition and resilience. They are tools and lessons that will shape you into the best version of yourself. Choose on, my friends.
I highly encourage all of you who read the post above to click the link below to watch the TED Talk by Ruth Chang that I cited above. Her 14 minute speech is great supplement to the ideas I touched on, but didn’t go more in depth out of respect for your time (I tend to ramble write).
Chang, Ruth. “How to Make Hard Choices.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, www.ted.com/talks/ruth_chang_how_to_make_hard_choices?language=en#t-71776.
“ How Many Daily Decisions Do We Make?” How Many Daily Decisions Do We Make? | UNC-TV: Science, science.unctv.org/content/reportersblog/choices.
“Social Decision-Making and the Brain: A Comparative Perspective.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Elsevier Current Trends, 15 Feb. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S136466131730013X.
Woods, David D. "Essential characteristics of resilience." Resilience engineering. CRC Press, 2017. 33-46.