The Paradox of Freedom: How Constraint Makes Us Happier


One of the biggest dogma runs like this:

If we want to maximize our happiness, the best way to achieve it is to maximize our freedom.

That is because freedom is something valuable, worthwhile and essential to every single one of us. It sounds logical.

When we have freedom, we can use it to do things that maximize our happiness, we’re not taking orders from anyone, and no one needs to make decisions on behalf of us. And the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. Most people want to make more money not because they want the cold hard cash, but money actually brings more freedom to our life.

The more choices we have, the more freedom we have. The more freedom we have, the happier we are. No one is ever questioning this.

The top goals most people have today are certainly not job security nor stable relationship and happy family. Most people want to have more freedom to choose how they spend their life in their own term.

Indeed, we are bombarded by endless choices today:

  • There are more than hundred of degree programs up to choose, from a wide range of colleges and university nowadays.
  • Our smartphones come with billions of applications up to download.
  • We have hundreds, different type of salad dressing when we walk into the grocery store.

All of them should make us happier, since more choice means a happier life. This belief is heavily and deeply embedded in our day to day life. But does more choice really lead to more happiness?


The Negative Side of More Freedom

I’m not suggesting that more choice and freedom are bad to us. There is no argument on how more choice changes our world positively, and we all knew how more freedom brings us more happiness in the personal level.

So, let’s dive right into the negative impacts of what more choices brings to us.

(1) Too many choices produce procrastination and paralysis.

Just imagine what would happen if Apple actually launches 100 different models of iPhone in a year. The sales will definitely drop, why? Because there are too many models to choose, it makes it incredibly hard to make a decision and actually picks one.

The problem here is not about the iPhone’s quality here, but the hassle customers need to go through to make the right choice. The more choice we have, the harder it is for us to choose. And most people will simply walk away due to the difficulty in making a decision.

The best example is a big majority of startup failures. Most startup failures aren’t caused by the lack of resources or market size, but the lack of focus of the founding team. Smart people with great ideas and endless resources have more choice, which is not always a good thing. In this case, more choice produces procrastination and distractions to focus on the most important matters at the moment.

(2) The opportunity cost leads to comparison and dissatisfaction.

Now, you have 5 oranges to choose from, one of them is the best orange you will ever have in this world. And this is the only chance for you to have that, if you miss it, you will never be able to get your hand on the world’s tastiest orange in your lifetime ever. How will that make you feel?


More choice produces higher expectation to each and every option you have. We now know there is a world’s tastiest orange out of the five, but our brain will assume all the five are the tastiest. Even if we don’t think so, rationally and logically, we assume we will pick the tastiest one, and we can’t accept anything less than that.

But even if you’re incredibly lucky to pick the best, you might think it’s not perfect, because you can never know how the other four oranges taste like. The opportunity cost of the other oranges leads to dissatisfaction in us. This happened a lot in many areas of our life. Some people will think their spouse is not the best because there is always a better one, even when thier spouse is actually the best for them.

Eliminate Options and Choices

The more choice we have, the higher our expectation to every choice. The higher the expectation, the harder for us to choose. After we make a decision, we compare our choice with the other alternatives and assume what we have is somehow less attractive, even our choice is the best choice we can make.

The solution to this problem is clear. We first need to break the dogma we believe in so much. More choice does lead more happiness to a certain point, but it’s never linear; more choice after that point, it’s clear that we become more miserable.

We should trim down the choices we have by focusing on the most important thing. Here are a few examples you can implement into your daily life now.

  • Focus only on one business idea or career goal, put in all your effort and time to build that up first, before you hop to the next one.
  • Remove the other productivity app in your smartphone, you only need one. In fact, you need a pocket-sized notebook and a pen.
  • Be content with what you have and who is already with you, appreciate your marriage, make an effort to see the good in your spouse and focus on giving, not receiving.
  • Set only one fitness goal, you can’t build mass, cut fats, boost strength, improve endurance, and train for mobility all together at the same time.
  • Niche down your targeted market when you’re crafting your marketing campaign. So you can provide what your customers really need, and talk to them using their language.

If you have made a choice before – for your career, relationship, or finance, focus on the choice you had already made. Stop comparing your decision with other alternatives. Instead, focus on what you decided before and make the best out of it.

The Fish and The Aquarium

We are like a fish in an aquarium. The size of the aquarium dictates the freedom we have, and some of us see it as our constraints. To grow, we need a bigger aquarium. Unfortunately, what most people are trying to do is breaking the aquarium. Without it, you’re a dead fish.

With the advancement of technology today, we are open to limitless choices. Thus, we want to believe that we could have limitless freedom so we can be happier. But limitless freedom is never a good thing. Yes, we do need some freedom to expand and grow, but without constraints, we will have no direction, no standard, no plan, and certainly no happiness.



  1. The equation of happiness is really the balance between our reality and our expectation. When our reality exceeds or equal to our expectation, we’re happy. When it’s not, we’re feeling miserable. With that said, one of the best ways to feel happier instantly is to lower our expectations. I’m not suggesting that we should lower our goals and aim in life. Instead, be content and appreciate what we have at the moment and work towards our goals at a sustainable pace.
  2.  Barry Schwartz wrote a book called The Paradox of Choice, he further explained the concept here. He has done a great job in explaining why we aren’t happier when we have more choice with many research and case studies. He also proposed some solutions to help us in dealing with this paradox to maximize our happiness in some much effective ways.
  3. Barry Schwartz also has a TED talk on this topic.

This article was first published in

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Featured photo credit: Joshua Nessvia

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