Choice is a complicated issue today. On the one hand, we have none: We can't control whether we go over the fiscal cliff, whether our company lays us off, the maps on iPhone 5, or whether our kids listen to us.
On the other hand, as Barry Schwartz emphasized in The Paradox of Choice, we have too many choices. The cheese section at the grocery store, for example. How do you pick? Worse, in most stores there is more than one cheese section. It's enough to drive you to the aisle where more-intoxicating products are sold.
There are, in fact, three choices you have every day that too many of us don't make often enough.
1. Say "No." It doesn't matter how many things you think you have to do, not all of them are dependent on you. Work and kids are hard to say no to, but when the boss asks for more than is reasonable and the kids want the candy, the best way to reduce stress is to reduce the moments where it can rear its head.
Stress comes from the alarm in your brain, your amygdala. It's the ancient part of your limbic system, whose job is to keep you alert and safe. The more places you expose yourself to unsafe environments -- and just going to the grocery store can be dangerous these days with all those temptations, not to mention the screaming toddlers -- the more you will feel stress.
2. Slow down. That device in your pocket that connects you to the whole world. It's wonderful, but remember Dr. Schwartz's main point: Too much choice makes us miserable. Access to everything may be, in fact, what stresses us out. It takes us out of the present moment, where there is plenty that already needs our attention.
The antidote is to choose to slow down. The moment you do less, focus more on what's important right now, your alarm has less to worry about. The alarm only fills you with stress when it thinks you need to pay attention or you are in danger. Create moments where you know you're in control, because you're not trying to do too much, too fast, and there's no reason for your alarm to create stress.
3. Ask for help. Men and directions. Supermom and her kids. The solider taking the hill alone. Becoming a stereotype of stubborn independence or heroic achievement is rarely the right thing to do if you want to reduce stress. The simplest choice you can make to improve your daily life is ask for help.
Studies suggest the stronger your relationships, the happier and healthier you'll be. The reason may be the alarm knows you will fail if you try to do everything alone. When you have people you trust helping you, your brain doesn't feel stress, because it knows you have the support you need. When it worries that you might not be all right in the future, instead of panicking, it remembers you have teammates ready to help you.
You can't avoid the 171 varieties of cheese at the grocery store, complex work situations, or the challenges of raising a family. What you can choose to do each day is only put yourself in situations where the stress is worth it.
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