Are you (a) depressed or (b) depressed?

Increased choice appears to allow us to shop for the perfect life, yet it doesn't make us happy. Barry Schwartz explains why students, in particular, are glummer than ever.

Citizens in industrial democracies are awash with choice - in the products they buy and in virtually all other aspects of their lives.

Increasingly, people are free to choose when and how they work, how they worship, where they live, what they look like (thanks to cosmetic surgery) and what kind of romantic relationships they have. Further, freedom of choice is greatly enhanced by the increased affluence of modern developed societies, which gives people the means to act on their goals and desires, whatever they may be.

Does increased choice and increased affluence mean we have more happy people?

Not at all. In America, the number of people describing themselves as "very happy" has declined 5 per cent in the past 30 years, which means that about 14 million fewer people report being very happy today than in 1974. And, as a recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association indicates, the rate of clinical depression has more than tripled over the past two generations. In the UK, as in almost every developed country, suicide rates are up. And both serious depression and suicide are occurring at younger ages than ever before, confronting universities with rising demands for psychological services. In the UK, a recent report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows that up to one in four students has some kind of emotional problem during their time in higher education.

Research in the US suggests that increased choice may be part of the problem. My colleagues and I, along with other researchers, have begun amassing evidence that increased choice can lead to decreased wellbeing, especially among those who feel the need to get the "best" in every decision. The research indicates that, as the number of options increases, people become increasingly likely to choose "none of the above", whether they are deciding on a variety of gourmet chocolate or retirement fund. And when people do select something, they tend to be less satisfied if there are many options than if there are few, even when the large set of options may enable them to do better.

We have identified several processes that help explain why greater choice decreases satisfaction. Choice increases the following:

* The burden of gathering information to make a wise decision

* The likelihood that people will regret the decisions they make

* The likelihood that people will anticipate regretting the decision they make, with the result that they can't make a decision at all

* The feeling of missed opportunities, as people encounter the attractive features of one option after another that they are rejecting

* Expectations about how good the chosen option should be

* The chances that people will blame themselves when their choices fail to live up to expectations. After all, with so many options out there, there is really no excuse for a disappointing choice.

What are the implications of an abundance of choice in higher education? What happens in the US may be an omen of what is to come in the UK, as marketisation sweeps through the system, turning students into consumers who are given carte blanche to pick their higher education options off the shelf. In the US, the choice problem begins before university, as high-school juniors and seniors struggle to find the "perfect" school, and then deform their lives (with considerable encouragement from parents) in an effort to convince their chosen school that it simply must have them.

This process has done much to stunt the intellectual and emotional development of adolescents, making them less interesting to teach even as they look ever so much better on paper.

Then they start university education and discover a world so laden with choice that for many it has become overwhelming. In America, the modern university has become a kind of intellectual shopping mall. Universities offer a wide array of different "goods" and allow, even encourage, students - the "customers" - to shop around until they find what they like.

Individual customers are free to "purchase" whatever bundles of knowledge they want, and the university provides whatever its customers demand. In some institutions, this shopping-mall view has been carried to the extreme.

In the first few weeks of classes, students sample the merchandise. They go to a class, stay ten minutes to see what the professor is like, then walk out, often in the middle of the professor's sentence, to try another class.

Students come and go just as browsers go in and out of stores in a mall.

When I went to college 35 years ago, there were almost two years' worth of core course requirements that all students had to complete. We had some choices among courses that met those requirements, but they were rather narrow. You could be fairly certain if you ran into a fellow student you didn't know that the two of you would have at least a year's worth of courses in common to discuss. In the shopping mall that is the modern university, the chances that any two students have significant intellectual experiences in common are much reduced. And, at the advanced end of the curriculum, universities offer dozens of majors and the student's path through many of them is remarkably unstructured. For students with interdisciplinary interests, these interests can be combined into an almost endless array of special majors. If that doesn't do the trick, students can create their own degree plan. Also, within classes, the digital revolution has made access to information unbelievably easy, but this can also be a curse. With so much information so readily available, when do you stop looking? There is no excuse for failing to examine all of it.

There are many benefits to expanded educational opportunities. The traditional bodies of knowledge transmitted from teachers to students in the past were constraining and often myopic. The tastes and interests of idiosyncratic students were often stifled and frustrated. In the modern university, each individual student is free to pursue almost any interest without having to be harnessed to what his intellectual ancestors thought was worth knowing. Moreover, the advent of the digital age has opened up the intellectual world to all students, even those at resource-poor institutions.

But freedom comes at a price. Now students are required to make many choices about education that will affect them for the rest of their lives, and they are forced to make them at a point in their intellectual development when many lack the wisdom to choose intelligently. For example, students ask me to approve course selections that they themselves can't justify. They are eager to have double or triple majors, partly to pad their résumés, but also because they can't figure out which discipline they really want to commit to.

In addition, they are trying to figure out what kinds of people they are going to be. Matters of ethnic, religious and sexual identity are up for grabs. So are issues of romantic intimacy. Students can live and work anywhere after they graduate, and in a wired world they can work at any time, from any place. Of course students have always had to make these kinds of life decisions. College is an unsettled, and often unsettling, time. But in the past, in most of these areas of life, there was a "default" option - such as marriage and having children - that was so powerful that many decisions didn't feel like decisions, because alternatives to the default weren't seriously considered. Nowadays, almost nothing is decided by default.

The result is a generation of students who use university counselling services and antidepressants in record numbers. Choice overload is certainly not the only reason for the anxiety and uncertainty among modern college students, but I believe it is an important one. By offering our students this much freedom of choice, we are doing them no favours. Indeed, I think that this obsession with choice constitutes an abdication of responsibility by university faculty members and administrators to provide college students with the guidance they badly need. Though all this choice no doubt makes some people better off, it makes many people worse off, even when their choices work out well. Universities should acknowledge the role they have played in creating a world of choice overload and move from being part of the problem to being a part of the solution.

The "culture wars" over the "canon" that rocked college campuses in the US for years have subsided. They subsided in part because giving students choice seemed like a benign resolution of what were sometimes virulent conflicts. Some choice is good, we thought, so more choice is better. Let students choose and we never have to figure out what to choose for them.

But offering more choice is not benign. It is a major source of stress, uncertainty, anxiety - even misery. It is not serving our students well.

They would be better served by a faculty and an institution that offered choice within limits, freedom within constraints.

I think we are less likely to turn our students off the life of the mind if we offer them curricular options that are well structured and coherent than if we simply let them choose whatever they want on their own.

Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. His new book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less , is published by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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