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The Netflix Dilemma
Why unlimited freedom + maximal choices = frustration (not happiness)
In his book book Rethink Yourself, Trevin Wax makes what I think is a pretty important point:
How do you come to understand what you really want out of life? People often think that looking into your heart to figure out your desires is the easy part; it’s the pursuit of happiness—of fulfilling your deepest desires—that takes so much energy. But that’s simply not the case. The truth is, you don’t know what will make you happy.
That’s very true and also a very important part of where I think we are in Western culture. The “post-liberal” condition we’re experiencing is, I think, closely tied to the choice dilemma. In other words, when human beings experience maximal self-determining liberty AND a virtually limitless set of options, more often than not the result will be frustration, not happiness. Why? Because, as Trevin says, “defining yourself” is a very difficult thing to do. Parameters, finite choices, limits of potentials—these things paradoxically can create the happiness we often assume they stifle, because they relieve the existential burden of total self-awareness.
Call this the Netflix Dilemma. Everyone who’s ever subscribed to Netflix can attest to many times when you fire up the app and simply have no idea what you want to watch. There are lots of options, and on a free Saturday night with nowhere to go, there are no limits on how much you can watch. Despite what we’d expect, these two conditions don’t create pleasurable consumption. More often than not, they freeze, confuse, and frustrate. There’s a reason Netflix’s most popular option is a show that aired its last episode years ago. Novelty can become ruthless, and when it does, familiarity is a comfort.
Given the ability to self-determine, happiness probably lies in having fewer, more controlled options. Similarly, given limitless options, a person is probably going to be more happy when they have more limits on their ability. Let me offer a couple of illustrations.
A high school senior who has exceptional grades and extracurricular resume has an almost limitless set of choices for where to go to college. Most of the time, this limitless opportunity is made smaller by something that controls the amount of felt freedom the student has: parental expectation, desire to go where certain friends go, or, as in many cases, the prestige of the Ivy League. The happiest, most confident seniors you know are in many cases seniors whose college choice was not very difficult because it was inherently limited by a number of factors.
Second, take marriage. The vast majority of Western people have almost total freedom to marry whomever they want. But statistically, the people with the strongest relationships and most promising prospects of lasting happiness are the people who used that freedom to choose from a pretty limited pool. They narrowed their choices down by using standards on religious belief or mutual desires for family life. Unlimited freedom is naturally pared down by limited choices; otherwise, we feel only paralysis, which might partly explain why so many are delaying marriage.
Few options and little liberty is essentially poverty or life under authoritarianism. On the other hand, limitless options and maximal liberty makes us miserable and depressed. I’m not suggesting a hackneyed life philosophy of “balance,” but I am suspicious that choices and liberty produce more peace and assurance when they’re held in tension rather than than combination.
At the risk of being trite, might I observe that this seems pretty compatible with the biblical vision of the Christian life? Christian liberty is controlled by a finite number of faithful options. You see this tension throughout the Scriptures and Christian teaching. For example, Christians only have two options in regards to sexuality: marriage or abstinence. On the other hand, these limited options are accompanied with broad freedom. Abstinent Christians can discern how God wants them to use their singleness in any variety of ways (missions, mercy, labor, etc). Likewise, Christians have many options for their vocations, but within those vocations there are defined limits to freedom; they cannot sacrifice family or the gathering of the church for greater profit, for example.
Our post-liberal moment is essentially a reckoning with the dilemma of freedom vs choice. We’ve discovered that expansive ability to express ourselves online has made us angrier and more insecure. We’ve discovered that limitless choices of where to live, study, work, and worship has made us friendless and rootless. And now the crucial question becomes, “Why?” And I think Trevin gets very close to it here: Because we don’t actually know what will make us happy.