Whenever I mention that my parents met for the first time on their wedding day, people’s most common reaction is shock: “Their families decided on the match? How could your parents let that happen to them?” Simply explaining that this is the way marriages were decided upon in my family—in most Indian families—does not seem to satisfy their curiosity or diminish their incredulity. On the surface, people understand that there are cultural differences in the way marriages come about. But the part that really doesn’t sit well, the part that they simply can’t wrap their heads around, is that my parents allowed such an important choice to be taken out of their hands. How could they do such a thing, and why?
Martin Seligman is an American psychologist who did some unsettling experiments with dogs to test the idea that clinical depression is a result of a perceived lack of control. His compelling studies produced the theory of “learned helplessness,” and they demonstrate just how much we need to feel in control of what happens to us. When we can’t maintain control, we’re left feeling helpless, bereft, unable to function. I first learned about these experiments when taking a course with Seligman as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. The findings from such research made me start to question whether my own Sikh tradition, which rather than empowering or uplifting its followers, could actually engender a sense of helplessness. As a member of the Sikh faith, I was constantly keeping track of so many rules: what to wear, what to eat, forbidden behaviors, and my duties to family. When I added it all up, there wasn’t much left for me to decide—so many of my decisions had been made for me. This was true not only for Sikhism, but also for many other religions. I brought my questions to Seligman, hoping he could help shed some light on whether members of religious faiths were likely to experience greater helplessness in their lives. But he, too, was unsure, as there were no scientific investigations into this subject. So we decided to embark on a study examining the effects of religious adherence on people’s health and happiness.
For the next two years, anyone glancing at my social calendar might have assumed I was trying to atone for a lifetime of sin. Each week my research began at sundown on Friday with a visit to a mosque, immediately followed by a visit to a synagogue. On Saturdays I visited more synagogues and mosques, and on Sundays I went church-hopping. In total, I interviewed more than 600 people from nine different religions. These faiths were categorized as: fundamentalist (Calvinism, Islam, and Orthodox Judaism), which imposed many day-to-day regulations on their followers; conservative (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, and Conservative Judaism); or liberal (Unitarianism and Reform Judaism), which imposed the fewest restrictions. In fact, some branches of the liberal religions don’t even require their practicing members to believe in God, and the largest percentage of Unitarian Universalists described themselves as secular humanists, followed by those with an earth- or nature-centered spirituality.
The worshippers were asked to fill out three surveys. The first contained questions regarding the impact of religion in their lives, including the extent to which it affected what they ate, drank, with whom they associated, and who they would marry. Members of the fundamentalist faiths indeed scored the highest on these questions and members of the liberal faiths scored the lowest. The survey also asked about religious involvement (how often they attended services or prayed) and religious hope (“Do you believe there is a heaven?” and “Do you believe your suffering will be rewarded?”). The second survey measured each individual’s level of optimism by examining their reactions to a series of hypothetical good and bad life events. When asked how they would react to being fired, optimists gave answers like, “If I was fired from my job, it would be for something specific that would be easy to fix,” while pessimists said things like, “If I was fired from my job, it would be because there’s something wrong with me that I’ll never be able to fix.” In essence, they were describing how much control they believed they had over their lives. The third survey was a common mental health questionnaire to determine whether they had any symptoms of depression, such as weight loss or lack of sleep. To my surprise, it turned out that members of more fundamentalist faiths experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity, and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts. Indeed, the people most susceptible to pessimism and depression were the Unitarians, especially those who were atheists. The presence of so many rules didn’t debilitate people; instead it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives.
This study was an eye-opener: restrictions do not necessarily diminish a sense of control, and freedom to think and do as you please need not increase it. The resolution of this seeming paradox lies in the different narratives about the nature of the world—and our role within it—that are passed down from generation to generation. We all want and need to be in control of our lives, but how we understand control depends on the stories we are told and the beliefs we come to hold. Some of us come to believe that control stems solely through the exercise of personal choice. We must find our own path to happiness because no one will (or can) find it for us. Others believe that it is God who is in control, and only by understanding His ways and behaving accordingly will we be able to find happiness in our own lives. We are all exposed to different narratives about life and choice as a function of where we’re born, who our parents are, and numerous other factors. In moving from culture to culture and country to country, we encounter remarkable variations in people’s beliefs about who should make choices, what to expect from them, and how to judge the consequences.
Since beginning my formal study of choice as an undergraduate, I have interviewed, surveyed, and run experiments with people from all walks of life: old and young, secular and religiously observant, members of Asian cultures, veterans of the Communist system, and people whose families have been in the United States for generations. During this time I, along with a growing number of researchers, have been looking at the ways in which geography, religion, political systems, and demographics can fundamentally shape how people perceive themselves and their roles. The stories of our lives, told differently in every culture and every home, have profound implications for what and why we choose, and it is only by learning how to understand these stories that we can begin to account for the wonderful and baffling differences among us.
Our cultural backgrounds influence not only how we marry but how we make choices in nearly every area of our lives. From early on, members of individualist societies are taught the special importance of personal choice. Even a walk through the local grocery store becomes an opportunity to teach lessons about choosing, particularly in the United States, where stores routinely offer hundreds of options. As soon as children can talk, or perhaps as soon as they can accurately point, they are asked, “Which one of these would you like?” A parent would probably narrow down the number of choices and explain the differences between this cereal and that one, or that toy and this one, but the child would be encouraged to express a preference. After a while, the child would graduate to making tougher choices, and by the ripe old age of four, they may well be expected to both understand and respond to the daunting question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” From this, children learn that they should be able to figure out what they like and dislike, and what will make them happy and what won’t. Because their happiness is on the line, their own opinions truly matter, and they must figure out how to judge the outcomes of their choices.
By contrast, members of collectivist societies place greater emphasis on duty. Children are often told, “If you’re a good child, you’ll do what your parents tell you,” and the parents need not explain themselves. From what you eat to what you wear, the toys you play with to what you study, it is what you’re supposed to do that’s most important. As you grow older, instead of being asked what you want, you may be asked, “How will you take care of your parents’ needs and wants? How will you make them proud?” The assumption is that your parents, and elders in general, will show you the right way to live your life so that you will be protected from making a costly mistake. There are “right” choices and “wrong” ones, and by following your elders, you will learn to choose correctly, even relinquish choice when appropriate.
“Choice” can mean so many different things, and its study can be approached in so many different ways. In my book I explore those aspects of it that I have found to be most thought-provoking and most relevant to how we live. I also look at choice from a variety of vantage points and tackle various questions about the way choice affects our lives. Why is choice powerful, and where does its power come from? What is the relationship between how we choose and who we are? Why are we so often disappointed by our choices, and how do we make the most effective use of the tool of choice? How much control do we have over our everyday choices? How do we choose when our options are practically unlimited? Should we ever let others choose for us, and if yes, who and why? Whether or not you agree with my opinions, suggestions, and conclusions—and I’m sure we won’t always see eye to eye—just the process of exploring these questions can help us make more informed decisions. Choice, ranging from the trivial to the life-altering, in both its presence and its absence, is an inextricable part of our life stories.