Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.
—Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
A few days ago, I wrote a post about the circumstances in which I’ve found it’s wise to distrust my emotions. Now I want to examine the occasions when I’ve found its wise to trust them.
There are few things more daunting, more agonizing, and more frightening for me than making important decisions. Yet life constantly confronts us with difficult choices. Where to go to school? Who to date? Who to marry? What profession to pursue? What job to accept? Where to live? To have kids? How many?
I hate making decisions like these, because it seems as if I’m gambling with my very life. Since I can’t know the future, how can I know I’m making the “right” choice? No matter how much information I collect, I can never be sure whether I have surveyed all the relevant points, nor can I ever be sure that another factor, unforeseeable but decisive, might appear in the future.
And if I could know all the important facts, even then, how could I be sure that my choice will maximize my happiness? What if my priorities change? What if something important to me now seems silly to me in ten years? How can I be certain of my preferences—whether I prefer living in the city or the country, for example—when I haven’t had experience of all the different options?
So you can see that both the relevant factors and the criteria are, to an extent, unknowable. The paradox boils down to this: I’m supposed to make a choice in the present that will bind my future self, without knowing exactly what I’m choosing or what my future self will be like. How can I do the right thing?
Thinking along these lines, it’s easy to fall into a pit of despair. It’s a gamble any way you look at it; and yet this is not money you’re dealing with, but your own life.
One way I’ve found to reduce this despair is to try to remind myself that my happiness does not depend on my external circumstances. As I know from painful experience, my mentality is far, far more important than my surroundings in determining my levels of anxiety and contentment. And the more I cultivate this ability to find joy within me rather than in external things, the less pressure is there to make the “right” choice. I no longer feel as though I’m gambling with my happiness, which reduces the significance of the decision.
Paradoxically, the less pressure you put on yourself—the less you tell yourself that your life hangs in the balance—the more likely you are to make the “right” choice, since anxiety, frustration, and fear are not conducive to clear thinking. Indeed, I think it’s wrong to apply the categories “right” and “wrong” to any choice like this. Life is wide open, and each option carries its own positives and negatives. Besides, no choice is absolutely binding. People change jobs, switch careers, get divorced and remarried, move cities, go back to university, and make a thousand other changes that their younger selves could never have predicted. All these are reasons not to agonize.
This brings me back to the role of emotion. I have found that, in making important life decisions, it is usually wiser to trust my intuition than any conscious analysis. Whether I’m visiting a potential college, going on a first date, or interviewing for a potential job, I have found that it either feels “right,” “wrong,” or somewhere in between, and that this feeling is often (though not always) more trustworthy than any of the factors I am weighing.
Let me give a concrete example. While in college, I took a class on the sociology of relationships. One day, the professor said something that has stuck with me. When looking for a partner, usually we have certain criteria we are applying to potential mates, a mental checklist we are trying to tick off. Maybe you want someone who doesn’t smoke, who’s taller than you, who is within a certain age-range. These are the things we normally use when on dating websites, for example, when judging other people’s profiles.
And yet, there is something besides these criteria, what my professor called “chemistry.” This is the way that two people actually interact: how they behave around each other, whether they make each other laugh, if they feel comfortable or uncomfortable, if they feel energetic or bored.
Chemistry is unpredictable. Somebody may satisfy your every criteria and yet bore you to death; and someone else may be totally unacceptable on paper and yet consistently make you laugh.
I think this notion of chemistry is applicable far beyond relationships. There is always an unpredictable element in your reactions. This is why we have interviews rather than hire people just on their résumés, and why we visit college campuses rather than decide from home. We need to experience something for ourselves, to confront it in our own experience, to see how we will react.
This leads to the question: What should you do when your instinctive reaction is out of harmony with your consciously chosen criteria? What if you instinctively like something that is mediocre on paper? Or if you instinctively dislike something that is great on paper?
I can only answer for myself. With decisions, I have learned to trust my gut reaction and to distrust my consciously chosen checklist. With very few exceptions, this strategy has proven satisfactory to me.
If life has taught me anything so far, it is that I am very bad at consciously predicting what I will like. From the university I attended, to the subject I studied, to the people I’ve dated, to the jobs I’ve taken—the most pleasant experiences, and the most satisfying choices, have inevitably been the result of unexpected gut feelings. Likewise, the periods in my life I have felt the worst, the choices I have most regretted, were times when I was trying to carry out some consciously-devised plan.
This leads me to another question: What is intuition? What is this part of my brain, unconscious and inaccessible, that is more trustworthy than my conscious thoughts? This is really a question for psychologists, I suppose, and I feel presumptuous answering it.
I will only say that, judging from my own experience, we are subconsciously aware of far more things than we can consciously take note of. Small details in our environment, little social cues and ticks of personality, a thousand details too fine and too subtle to be intentionally investigated—all this is taken in by our brains, automatically and without effort.
Now, I am not believer in the mystical subconscious, and I do not follow either Freud or Jung. Nevertheless, it seems one of the basic facts of my life that my brain performs far more operations than I am consciously aware of. There is no contradiction or mystery in this. Insects scan their environments with great efficiency without the need of consciousness at all (or at least, I don’t think insects are conscious). And in any case, to effectively comport myself in a physical environment, coordinating my limbs with my senses, keeping myself out of any sudden threats, I need to process many more facts than my poor conscious mind is able to.
(I hope to write more about this in the future, but for now it’s only important that I think we do the majority of our most vital cognitive labor without being consciously aware of it.)
Considering all this, it seems eminently wise to trust my intuition. With regards dating, for example, I believe my unconscious brain is a far more reliable judge of character than my conscious self. While I am fiddling around with psychological guessing games and simplistic theories, my unconscious brain, honed by thousands of years of social evolution, is producing a sophisticated analysis on the person I’m with, and giving this information to my conscious brain in the form of intuition and feeling.
I’ve gotten this far, and yet I still haven’t delineated the situations in which our intuition should be trusted, and in which it shouldn’t. The short answer is that everyone must figure this out for themselves. Only experience has shown me when following my intuition gets me into trouble, and when it has guided me well.
More generally, however, I think that, when making decisions regarding one’s own happiness, it is necessary to consult your intuition. But when making decisions of wider consequence, it is reckless to rely on intuition alone. Your intuition may let you know what will please you, but not what will please others. In other words, your intuition provides information about what you want, which is a fact about yourself. It does not, and cannot, provide reliable information about the world. This, I think, is a vital distinction to keep in mind.