List: False Choices. Do Any of These False Choices Sound Familiar?

Every Wednesday is Quiz Day, or List Day.
This Wednesday: A list of false choices.

The more I’ve thought about happiness, the more wary I’ve become of false choices. It’s so easy to frame choices or attitudes in an either/or way, and yet, so often, that choice is misleading. Often, there are other options; or the choice is overly reductionist; or no choice is necessary at all.

False choices are tempting for a couple of reasons. First, instead of facing a bewildering array of options, you limit yourself to a few simple possibilities. Also, the way you set up the options usually makes it obvious that one choice is the high-minded, reasonable, laudable choice, and one is not.

But although false choices can be comforting, they can leave you feeling trapped, and they can blind you to other choices you might make. Consider this list…do you ever find yourself thinking in these terms?

I can either be positive, or I can be authentic
I should decide whether I want a life that’s interesting, or a life that’s happy
I can have a few close friends or lots of superficial friends
I can choose a job I enjoy, or I can make good money
I have to decide to marry this person now, or accept the fact that I’ll never have a family
I must worry about the happiness of other people, or about my own happiness
I can have a life full of fun, passion, and adventure, and I can have security

Maybe these are your only two choices — but maybe not.

I often struggle with the first one; I try to find ways to be authentically enthusiastic, and sincerely positive. Usually it’s not as hard as I expect.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” Happiness is a goal and a by-product. Nietzche explained this well: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”

Have you ever caught yourself framing a problem in a false choice?

* Want a free, personalized bookplate for your copy of The Happiness Project – or for a friend? Email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com. Feel free to ask for as many as you’d like – and don’t forget to include your mailing address.

  • The Red Angel

    I struggle with the false choice, “I can have a few close friends or lots of superficial friends” a lot. I try to have lots of close friends and as few superficial friends as possible, but it’s not always that easy. T_T I’m used to sticking with a few close friends for a while, and I’m good at keeping superficiality out of my circle of trust (haha, Meet the Parents movie reference?). Close, true friends are hard to come by though, so even though I don’t have a lot of them, I usually am lucky enough to have those friendships stick around for a while. =)


  • Ella

    Absolutely and I have tried to make a very conscious effort in the past few years to stop. The most recent one was either I like person x or I don’t. Then I realized actually there is almost nobody I really don’t like! It can be that I like this person and this other person is nice in some ways but we just don’t gel in a lot of other ways. The black and white school of thought as I call it is very limiting and maybe sometimes we do it for exactly that reason, it gives us an excuse not to do something, to remain inert.

    • Kathy

      Ella – Thanks for the insight about people that you “think” you don’t like. You’re right – most people are likable – but the gelling part is the part that keeps me away from some and moves me toward others. That way of thinking gives me an option that makes me feel much less guilty when I don’t want to spend time with very nice people.

  • Donna

    False choices remind me of rhetorical questions…Something I ask, setting up, or framing the situation, to get the answer I want. Also, in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) this reminds me of the coping skill called “relationship thinking” – avoiding black or white, all or nothing approach. DBT embraces all thinking without judging. It has taught me to use “AND”, not “BUT, YET, OR”.

    There is no right or wrong, it is what it is “Wise Mind and Radical Acceptance” – principles I apply daily. Definitely agree that happiness is both a goal AND a by product. Well said.

  • LeAnne

    Yes! I know I do this and probably even more than I realize. Honestly, I have hit every item on your list at one time or another. Your post made me think seriously about one particular area where I tend to do it most often. I think its time to do a bit of reframing – or perhaps break the frame entirely!

  • I used to make a lot of false choices – unintentionally or maybe without much thought. When I decided to live more authentically and really search inward for what I needed and wanted, I discovered these too things were often complimentary, but I had let fear trap me in a place where I felt I couldn’t make (or perhaps deserve) a truly good choice.

    It is freeing to live authentically, and I agree that happiness can be a by-product.

  • Jason

    Sometimes systematically limiting choices actually leads to more happiness. As Barry Schwartz mentions in his book “The Paradox of Choice” when the number of choices becomes too high, analysis paralysis could take over. Also, when we have a bewildering selection to choose from, we may fall into the trap of thinking that near-perfection can be achieved because of the high number of choices available. Schwartz mentions the issue of buying jeans. Back in the day, there was only one type of jeans available and you just wore it and lived with it. But nowadays, there are 100s of types of jeans to choose from. When one finally chooses the pair of jeans out of the 100s, it’s easy to fall into the trap of nit picking the faults of the chosen pair of pants while thinking “what if I had gotten the other pair?”.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great example! I highly recommend the Barry Schwartz book. Fascinating.

  • The biggest “false choice” in my life is something like:
    I can be creative and nutty, or I can live a normal, stable life.

    I stopped creating as a teen to become “more socially acceptable”… Of course it didn’t work, I didn’t get what I wanted AND I lost track of my creative spirit.

    I’m on my way to recovery now, trying to build a life for myself that is creative and stable at the same time. I want both!

    • Leslie

      Me too! I’m currently pursuing a masters degree in Musical Theatre, because I love performance and I love being in that collaborative space with other creative people. But I hate auditioning and I don’t really want to be rootless and running all over the country all the time trying to find a job. Plus, I love the community I live in, and would love to have a real house and maybe a family. And I miss some of my other creative pursuits, like writing, when I’m busy devoting my life to the stage. So I’m trying to come up with an outside the box solution, instead of “I have to quit my steady job and go off to auditions or I have to accept that I’m just destined to be a normal 9 to 5 worker.”

  • What I’ve come to realize is that people often say that they have “no choice,” and I don’t believe there is such a thing. For example, someone who says they have no choice but to stay late at work. “Do you really have no choice?” “Well, it’s that or get fired.” (I’d call that a false choice.) People often say this when they don’t want to think about making radical changes to their lives, like standing up to their boss or quitting their job and finding one that makes them happier or gives them the hours they want. When you really get down to it, no one can MAKE you do anything, you’re just choosing their esteem or their happiness or your security or any number of things over choosing not to do it.

    • gretchenrubin

      this is a very good point. thinking you have “no choice” like having “no
      time” often makes you feel trapped and forget that in many cases, you do
      have a choice, or you can make time, if you set priorities a different way.

      • sunshinecook

        Also, saying you have no choice or no time hides your values (from yourself.) For instance, if I recast “I have no choice but to stay at [undesirable job]” to “Right now I choose to stay at [undesirable job] because I value the security it offers more than the chance at something I would enjoy more” I actually address the correspondence between my values and my actions. This may lead to a new choice, or it may just make t easier to live with your lot–Sometimes just sifting through the options and recalling that yes, I really do think this undesirable option is the best idea for me right now can help me get up the grit to go through something unpleasant yet nevertheless worth doing.

    • jenny_o

      I believe that for many good people life is more complicated than what you are describing. You may be choosing to feed or shelter your children over your own needs for fulfillment or personal time and that is why you stay late at work. In these days of job insecurity and one person doing the work of two or three due to cutbacks, you may very well be risking getting fired if you don’t get your work done by working late. The having or not having choice is not always – or maybe even often – black and white.

      • gretchenrubin

        Yes! Sometimes it’s true that there are only two options, very good point.
        But not always. my point is that it’s useful to make sure that the framework
        of the question isn’t hiding additional options.

        For instance: I can have time for myself, or time with my children, or I can
        get fired. This maybe the actual situation. Just worth looking at.

        • Rachel

          Good point. Sometimes circumstances limit our options, but often we limit them ourselves. I think that’s what Gretchen means. For example, there are well-to-do people who battle the same work/personal times issues as those who struggle from paycheck to paycheck. Sadly, the latter may not have many options, but the former certainly do, and if they think they don’t, it may well be in how they are framing their choices.

        • jenny_o

          Now I can agree 🙂

  • Wow didn’t realize how many of these false choices I make.

  • Leelah

    As a teacher, I can assure you that have a job I love or make good money is a very real choice.

  • Leah

    “never have a family” what’s that about? I thought it was about finding someone who wants to marry you when you’re *almost* too old to have your own kids. What about adoption or foster care within your state? I know I live outside of social norms (age 34, married more than 10 years with 0 kids) but this particular point in this post reminded me of all of the people asking me “when are you guys having kids?” The other choices are great and ring true…but this particular one jumped out as something that many women think to themselves (due to so many social pressures to have children). I know we can’t change society or culture but I really wish women would think of other options before jumping into a relationship exclusively to get that bun in the oven before it’s ‘too late’.

    • Acetchmt

      I admire you for living outside the social norms and being okay with that. I did that for a long time (8 years married, age 40 before finally deciding to have a child), and the social pressure to get a bun in the oven was pretty strong. I’m glad I didn’t cave in and now have an 18-month-old on my own terms. Very happy!

  • Courtney

    I think my biggest battle has been “I can be happy, or I can be serious”. For whatever reason, I’ve associated cynical, stressed, antisocial people with focus, drive and intelligence…but over time, I’ve come to realize that stress is optional, and I actually get more done when I’m happy. I think this is a fairly typical misperception, since people get amazed when I mention I have a family, do full-time work, full-time grad school, and participate in a number of outside activities: “But you don’t act stressed!” or “You’d never know it!”

  • Chris

    When I read the post I realized that I am trapped in the situation described in number four: I always thought the job I enjoy could never, ever bring me enough money to live a decent life by it and that I will have to give it up and look for a “real” job. Strangely enough, I also happen to know quite a number of people who have the job I enjoy and also have enough money to live the aforementioned decent life. I wonder why that never started my thinking until I read your post, Gretchen. Thank you for making me realize my false choice!

  • Arina Nikitina

    Great position here. It’s true we have to make a stand between this and that. With careful decisions, we could actually choose AND stand by our choice. Often, people are quick to decide but later regret they rushed it. All the time, we must think clearly and weight everything if the choice we’re jumping into is a step toward our goal. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’d be like smaller steps but still headed to the same direction, and often they’d appear to be a diverted road but still ends where we are really headed. In the end, let’s just be wise and not make false choice, right?