Choose Seldom, Expect Little, Travel Happier

Choose Seldom, Expect Little, Travel Happier

It all started with choosing destinations for our around the world ticket. ‘Pick three continents you want to go to and seven destinations within those, and you’re good to go!’ said the travel agent cheerfully, making it sound like the easiest thing to do. I, on the other hand, noticed a tiny seed of dread starting to develop in the pit of my stomach.

What do you mean, choose seven destinations out of the whole wide bloody world? A mild case of choice paralysis set in. And that was only the beginning.

The amount of decisions we face in today’s society is overwhelming. From your local supermarket (do you also get to pick from 17 types of olive oil?) to health insurance (you better be lucky enough to afford the premiums) and a mobile plan (plus a phone to go with it). Long-term travel doesn’t take this away. It takes it to another level. 

Before I left, I had quite an established routine in Sydney. Having a bit of a fixed rhythm to my day-to-day was predictable, but it helped in alleviating several choices I had to make. The fact that some of the decisions were automated meant I could make better or more informed decisions in other areas of life. 

More Travel = More Freedom = More Choice

I thought travelling long-term promised more spontaneity and the chance to break free from the shackles of structured and well-organised life. And it has. But it has also brought an unexpected complication. Because what I didn’t consider was the fact that being freer effectively means having more choice.

The moment I decided to go travelling – and go all rogue – the number of decisions I had to make grew dramatically.

Suddenly, I had to consider where to spend the night, where to have dinner and what to eat. Where to go next and how to get there? What to plan for the new location I was heading for? Having left a 9-5 (or more like 8-8) job behind, I also found myself with a very different amount of time on my hands. Now I got to decide how to spend the time previously filled with a busy job! It was fantastic and, of course, I had hobbies I wanted to focus on. I just had to decide which ones I wanted to pursue and how I was going to go about it during my travels. Before I knew it, ‘the tyranny of choice’ was ruling the itinerary. 

A beautifully overwhelming selection of pickles in Istanbul, Turkey | Photo by Ola Moszumanska

The Tyranny Of Travel Choices

The term tyranny of choice, used by the American psychologist and author of ‘The Paradox Of Choice’, Barry Schwartz, refers to the challenging effects of the culture of choice. It’s the notion that, logically, more comprehensive selection should make us happier because it allows people to select precisely what they want – but research indicates that abundance doesn’t give happiness. 

Whether you’re a traveller or not, ‘choice fatigue’ might sound familiar. It means that having more choice makes the decision more difficult. And the multitude of options, rather than being an agent of freedom, can be paralysing. Anybody else spent days ploughing through the ample resources of the worldwide web reading all possible reviews about all possible accommodation options in Istanbul and found themselves utterly incapable of making a decision? *puts her hand up* A casual search for a two-week stay in Istanbul in May returns 2,637 properties on Booking.com.

But that’s not all. 

According to Barry Schwartz, we not only struggle to make a choice in the first place, we’re also probably quite unhappy with the choice we’ve made because of the imagined alternative.  If something we’ve chosen isn’t perfect, it’s easy to think there must be a better alternative. I believe it’s what us, Millenials, refer to as FOMO and I am very partial to it myself. “Opportunity costs subtract from the satisfaction that we get out of what we choose, even when what we choose is terrific. And the more options there are to consider, the more attractive features of these options are going to be reflected by us as opportunity costs.” – says Barry in his TED Talk. I mean, now that I have decided to go to Mexico over Argentina, Chile and Venezuela, I am absolutely convinced that any of the other options would have been a much better choice. Even if I’m not entirely sure why.

And because there are so many options, we generally have much higher expectations of things we’re choosing between – it has become increasingly hard to get pleasantly surprised by anything. And because our standards are so high, in general, we feel worse. I went to the stunning Pilanesberg National Park and spent two days driving around, watching – in awe – zebras, giraffes, elephants, rights, hippos, impalas and other gorgeous African animals. But I wasn’t fortunate enough to spot the lions. The whole trip ruined, right? Wouldn’t have happened in Kruger Park, that’s for sure.

How about leaving your whole life behind in a brave effort to embrace the unknown roaming the world and just be cool with that?

Expect Less And Be OK with ‘Good Enough’

Lowering expectations is one way to be happy. I will go even further. When travelling, it’s great to have no expectations at all. That is difficult in a world in which social media creates a very vivid, enviable, saturated and often untrue image of the world around us – but it’s possible with a lot of work and goodwill. Following on from Barry’s advice on how to aid the tyranny of choice, here are some thoughts on how they can relate to long-term travel:

  • Set ‘good enough’ standards and abandon the idea of finding the best option. If you find something that ticks the most important boxes, don’t spend any longer looking for the next best thing. If you’re always after the best option, finding the needle in the haystack of 2,637 accommodation options will take a lifetime. If you’re OK to settle for something good enough, you are likely to find something sooner – and perhaps be just as satisfied as if you were if you’d picked ‘the best’ option. 
  • Restrict your option choices. Looking for a bar for a nightcap in the new city? Reference only two websites that list information on the local entertainment scene and try your luck.
  • Make an effort to get FOMO out of our life. Over and out. Appreciate the positives about the decisions you made and don’t ponder on what the other choices could have meant. 
  • Be OK with any outcome and accept that none of them it better or worse. Fine, perhaps Bali belly isn’t a good one. But otherwise, not every dish you have during your travels will be a MasterChef quality one – far from it. Fine! You might land a room in a totally dead area of town. So what? No lions on the safari? How cool was cruising so close to the zebras though? Take it all in as part of the experience – because that is precisely what it is. And it is yours and nobody else’s, and that’s what’s special about it. 
  • Lastly, put agency behind your choices and use them to make a statement about who you are. Make choices because of the person you want to be through the decisions you make. Rather than comparing destinations, experiences, places to each other based on an objective set of qualifiers, exercise your own individuality in the shape your travels take as a form of self-expression.

By no means have I got it all figured out. In fact, as I pack for the next leg of the trip, I struggle to keep the choice paralysis at bay because, believe me, it really comes to life in the process of packing. 

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