Do You Fall into This Happiness Trap? The False Choice.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Quiz Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: A list of common false choices.

It’s very easy to fall into the happiness trap of false choices–of thinking you can either do X or Y, and that’s the choice you have to make.

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 often makes it obvious that one choice is the high-minded and reasonable 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.

“I’d rather have a few true friends instead of tons of shallow friends.”
You don’t have to choose between a “real” few and “superficial” many. I have intimate friends and casual friends. I have work friends whom I never see outside a professional context. I have childhood friends whom I see only once every ten years. I have several friends whose spouses I’ve never met. I have online friends whom I’ve never met face-to-face. These friendships aren’t all of equal importance to me, but they all add warmth and color to my life.

“I think it’s more important to worry about other people’s happiness, instead of thinking only about myself and my own happiness.”
Why do you have to choose? You can think about your happiness and other people’s happiness. In fact, as summed up in the Second Splendid Truth, thinking about your own happiness will help you make others happy. And vice versa!

“Either I can be financially secure, or I can have a job I enjoy.”

“If I don’t want to live in a chaotic, clutter-filled house,  I need to get rid of all my stuff.”

“I’d rather have an interesting life than a happy life.”

“It’s more important to be authentic and honest than it is to be positive and enthusiastic.”
Can you find a way to be authentically enthusiastic or honestly positive? In my experience, it’s often possible, though it can take a little extra work.

“I can care about people, or I can care about possessions.”

From Eleanor Roosevelt: “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.

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Sometimes, the falsity of a false choice comes from the fact that both choices are true. I have more time than I think and less time than I think. I can accept myself and expect more from myself. I want an empty shelf, and I want a junk drawer.

In further illustration of that point, false choices  themselves can sometimes be unhelpful but at other times, helpful.

A false choice can be an indirect way for you to figure out what you really want; the way you’ve framed the question reveals the path you want to take. For instance, a reader emailed me and, after a long explanation of his situation, wrote, “So the question is: do I decide to risk everything to pursue a life of meaning and happiness, or do I stay stuck in my boring job?”  That may have been a false choice, but in any event, it was pretty clear he’d made his decision!

Can you think of examples of when you, or someone you know, fell into the trap of a false choice? What was it?

  • BerthaStein

    Great site. But  a bit overwhelming for me to be happy using it.
    Good luck

  • Susan

    So good to see an article on this topc.  I’ve been prone to “false dichotomies” (great word) all my life and remain vigilant (they’re sneaky!).  Either/or is so often a lie, but it’s natural (for me at least) to look no further once it appears.  Interesting side bar:  Years ago, a dear and brilliant friend (even by Princeton standards, where she took a double major in math & philosophy) spent a brief time selling jewelry in one of those temporary, painful dead-end “first jobs”….  She never discounted it, though, as she said the store owner there taught her The Secret of Sales Success:  As early as possible in the interaction, get the customer to start comparing two items; they would then find themselves not deciding IF they were purchasing, but WHAT they were purchasing.  (The second I heard that, I knew I had fallen for it a zillion times and was instantly a more discerning consumer!) 

  • Peninith1

    Does anyone but me detect a certain snarkiness in these very common false choice sayings? A tone of superiority, self-justification, or defensiveness? If someone else says such things to me, I must say I feel that I’m being judged. I would be wary of someone who comes at you with such statments. I try NOT to say such things to myself. My choice statements tend to be in the ‘you can do anything, but you can’t do EVERYTHING,’ mode. And that’s true enough. My FALSE choice statements tend to be in the ‘you have no choice’ category–I HAVE to do this that or the other, or I CAN’T do something. Or I wish I could, BUT. Those are my red flags for potential false choices.

    • sue

      yes, common cliches are a little snarky —we all do a lot of self-justifying  when we have doubts we’re doing the right thing…trying to convince ourselves as well as others of the rightness of our choices… if we were doing the opposite we’d be justifying that POV instead.

  • I think one of the big ones for women is “I can either be a good mom *or* have a fulfilling career.” 

    • Margarita

      But it’s also a false choice to assume that if you chose to stay home with your kids, you can’t have a fulfilling career when they’re older. Or that staying home with kids cannot be fulfilling.

    • I think this choice has an even more worrying undercurrent – that you have to want to do these things at all.  Its a valid choice not to want children or a career, but so often women’s lives are framed by this question as if its the only decision of any importance.

  • False choices mean NO choices at all. It’s like a narrow-minded view of life. I have to admit though that I’ve fallen into the trap in past and perhaps maybe also do so in the future… But it’s great to be reminded of what these are.

  • Sylrayj

    One of the ones I consider the most dangerous:  “Anything is better than being alone.”  It keeps more people in poor relationships than even “Stay together for the kids.”  There aren’t easy and simple answers for those, because if they were easy we’d not even have sayings for them, but there are almost always other answers, including “It’s pretty nice taking time to learn who I am.”

  • Sometimes,But since I embrace life.I should go with the flow and turn my best as long as I can fulfill my duties and responsibilities with a love and happy desires.

  • Very intriguing post. For myself, I find that false choices are an indication of one of those old-fashioned “cop-outs.” False choices are usually so polarized that there’s an indictment baked right in. If I have to choose between caring about people or possessions, well then I must care about people, right? So to hell with possessions! And if I have to choose between caring for my family or having a rewarding career, I clearly would have sold my soul if I don’t say my family is my priority. The challenge here is to find the gray muddy murky center between two extremes. The truth — and the opportunity — lives there too. 

  • I don’t know exactly how to phrase this as a false choice, but I sometimes find myself thinking I need alone/down time and then am sad when I’ve missed out on a social experience. I tend to think the social situation will be too overwhelming but then regret not stepping out of my comfort zone.

    • Susan

      This really “speaks” to me!  Left to myself I’d almost never CHOOSE the social gathering, but when I go — always reluctantly —  I almost always have a good time, learn something, get a laugh or give one….  I’ve learned, though, that sometimes those mixed feelings are a real message not about what you’re choosing between but about being out of touch with your needs and desires in the moment.  Often good, if you can, to sit with that discomfort of not deciding until some option occurs to you and rings that “AHA!” bell inside – then you know it’s right.  (A couple of interesting books on the market right now about introverts — have to get back to work but they’re easy enough to look up on the book sites.)

      • sue

        i think she covers this in her book under something like, “sometimes doing the thing that leads to happiness doesn’t feel happy at first”… 

        few of us are happy when give in to inertia/tiredness and miss opportunities. More often we wake up in the a.m. refreshed by sleep  and kick ourselves for choosing poorly…when, if we’d had a cup of tea or a shower or quick jog/swim or nap the day before, we might’ve rallied and gotten  outta the house to an energizing  social gathering.

        then again, i’ve made the effort and regretted that too, but not if it gives me the chance to connect w/even one  good friend.

  • I’m especially irked by the false choice of being financially secure or having a job you love. This implies that one is optimizing on one of these variables. But how many people are actually in the job that would bring them the utmost satisfaction, or are in a job that is their absolute pinnacle of pay? If you’d optimized on one variable, then yes, you could only increase the other by decreasing the first. But my guess is that people aren’t optimized. Which means that if you don’t like your current job, it is quite possible you’d like a better paying one more! 

  • Helen

    Just today I heard a speaker quote Yogi Berra:  “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”   They were talking about a young man with disabilities who took so many chances and opportunities, not limiting himself to the one path.  Hearing his inspiring story and reading your post, with that fork in the road picture, makes me think the universe it trying to tell me something :o)    Thank you!

  • What an insightful post. Being able to realize that we do not have to make “absolute” choices adds to our happiness and enriches our lives! In fact, this kind of “flexible thinking” helps me  to see options I would never have thought in the first place.

  • Angela

    My thinking had always been – choose food or choose being thin. And my weight always yo-yoed and I was always unhappy about it. But since I’ve got the exercising bug and made the active choice of choosing quality food over quantity (a friend thought she’d misheard me recently when I said I am trying to spend more on food) I now realise this was a false way of thinking x

    • Pen Creed

       This and many of the comments remind of something I learnt and have used to my advantage: When given a choice of two, take the third.

      This lesson came to me hard on the heels of “think in unlimited ways”. So lovely. So now, I eat *and* stay thin, I go out with good friends and have a lovely special time. I go out with acquaintances and have fun. 

      Someway along the way, I lost all this. Glad to have happened on the Happiness Project. It reminds of so many wonderful things that dropped of my life, and reminds me how to life magically, again. Thanks all.

  • Gen

    There is substance in the difference between “true” and “superficial” friends that wasn’t picked up in your comment. There are people who will return your friendship, value your time, enjoy your presence; and there are people who’ll hang out with you just because you add to the numbers. That distinction is important, as the former friends will definitely help become and stay happy, while the latter is an energy drain. Superficiality isn’t only determined by how often you see someone… your definition seems to apply to the difference between acquaintances VS friends. (And personally, I still prefer spending my time with a few close friends than a ton of acquaintances. =)

  • T. L. Cooper

    I discovered that I didn’t buy into these kinds of either/or statements a long time ago. “False choices” is the perfect name for them!
    That said, I came across this post at the perfect time. I’m facing a major life change, and some “false choice” statements have started to creep into my thoughts. While I see them for what they are, I’m struggling a bit to not allow them to affect my decision making process! This post reminded me to question any statement that is too “absolute”, so I can see beyond the false choice it presents…
     Thank you!

  • AD Coleman

    Here’s a great happiness quote for you: “Daily, constantly, we choose by our desires, our thoughts, and our actions whether we want to be blessed or cursed, happy or miserable.” -Ezra Taft Benson

  • It helps to be comfortable with the unknown or the middle ground. Life is not all or nothing. When we talk about making choices, we tend to think that they are one and done. However, we get to choose over and over and over again. So, I can have deep friendships and enjoy the occasional cocktail with a casual friend. I can enjoy simplicity and indulge in beauty and what, to some, might look like extravagance. It’s living in paradox and embracing all of it. 

  • anna

    The idea of “happening” to your life is somewhat of a paradox.  You must consciously hold on, steer things, and work very hard in a given direction; but must also let go, understand that you may not be totally in control, and relax into a place of grace and surrender when life brings you the unexpected.  

  • Outstanding insight and a good example of the lies we tell ourselves to avoid taking the riskier path. For years I chose the false choice of “I’d rather have security in life instead of happiness”. I thought my career would give me security and I could put off what I really wanted until “the future”.

    However, as with all false choices, there comes a day when you cannot help but realize just how thin a lie you’ve been telling yourself. When 2 people very close to me we’re struck with major health issues that changed their lives forever at 35, it was just the slap in the face I needed. 

    The choice became “Why would I delay my happiness for a future that is always uncertain?” I’ve made big decisions, created a life I truly love, and have never been happier. 

    Thank you for getting us all thinking and exploring the choices we make, and those we don’t.