Is freedom the secret to happiness? We take a look at the paradox of freedom
Is freedom the secret to happiness? It’s an assumption that the more freedom you have the happier you will be in life, but is this entirely true? Having the freedom to use your time however you like and the money to buy whatever you want is often regarded as the ultimate lifestyle. Maybe you have limits in your life you would like to be free from. But what if those very restrictions were your pathway to increased happiness and fulfillment?
Until fairly recently, I believed that the fewer restrictions I had on my time, money and ability, the happier and more successful I would be. I didn’t begin to question this assumption until the birth of my son.
When I became a mum, my world both expanded and shrank. My heart expanded with the addition of a little human that I loved unconditionally and who brought me so much joy. My world also shrank as many of the freedoms I had enjoyed and taken for granted disappeared. I lost the freedom to sleep when I needed to, to work as long as I wanted, to go to the gym alone, to enjoy an uninterrupted hot coffee and to go on spontaneous dinner dates with my husband.
Scarcity is linked to happiness because it increases awareness, gratitude and enjoyment.
At first I struggled to get my head around these changes and how my whole life now revolved around my beautiful little boy. Over time, however, I discovered something very interesting about how these changes were making me feel. I discovered that by losing my unlimited and unrestrained freedom, I had gained a deeper appreciation and joy for life and the simple things.
I assumed that abundance and freedom were what would make me happier. What I found, though, was that it was actually the restraints in my life that provided the “light and shade”, which enhanced my experiences and left me happier and more satisfied with my life. This concept I came to understand as the “paradox of freedom”.
Before having my son, an uninterrupted hour in a cafe was the norm. It was what I did to unwind and relax. Now, spending time in cafes with my son is a little trickier. My son and I have a lot of fun watching the staff make coffees and saying hello to people and puppies that walk by, but it’s certainly not the “time out” I used to enjoy.
So when my mum offers to watch my son so I can go up to my local cafe and enjoy an uninterrupted cup of coffee, I jump at the chance. I am on such a high afterwards because the freedom and time to myself feels amazing. With only myself to worry about, I can drink my coffee while it’s still hot, I can read a magazine, think and watch the world go by. What was once a common experience now feels wondrous.
It’s not just going out for coffee that has become more special. Other experiences I used to take for granted have also been transformed, such as going on a date night with my husband, working out at the gym on my own and attending conferences and events. I savour these times far more than I ever did before because I know I don’t have the freedom to do them whenever I like. It’s because of their scarcity that I appreciate and value them more.
Enhanced appreciation for life
Have you noticed how much you enjoy things when you don’t get to do them regularly? Have you found in your life that, the harder you have to work for something, the more you appreciate the end result? There is something about the struggle and the scarcity of an experience that infuses it with more emotion, allowing you to appreciate and enjoy the experience so much more.
In his article Denying the Self Increases Happiness, Allen McConnell says, “As people grow accustomed to material goods (eg fine dining, new smartphones), they often experience hedonic adaptation — that is, they get used to the finer things and are less inclined to savour daily pleasures.”
He continues, “Interestingly, scarcity can lead people to focus on enjoying an experience more deeply (eg savouring), which increases happiness.” Scarcity is rarely thought of as a good thing (except in the business world where it drives prices up), yet scarcity is linked to happiness because it increases awareness, gratitude and enjoyment.
The more comfortable your life is, the easier it is to take things for granted. It’s hard to truly value and appreciate something when you don’t have periods of time without it. Have you ever lost something — maybe a physical ability, an item or even a relationship — that you eventually got back? Did you value it more or less after that period of loss?
You don’t need to wait for big events in life to remind you of what is important and to feel more grateful for what you have. You can intentionally set limits on how you live your life for short periods of time and you can choose to consciously delay gratification.
When I was younger, I experienced seven years with a chronic illness that affected my energy levels and physical abilities. My illness meant I couldn’t work full-time, I couldn’t exercise, I couldn’t drive very far and some days I couldn’t even get out of bed.
As I started to recover, I noticed how much more I appreciated the abilities I was regaining. I was fit and active before I became sick, but I had been unable to do any exercise for years since my illness. I remember vividly the first day I felt well enough to put on my running shoes and go for a walk.
This incredibly simple “everyday” action filled my heart with so much happiness and optimism. I felt genuinely grateful, not only for my recovery but also for the experience of having lost my abilities in the first place. Without the loss I wouldn’t have experienced the intense joy and gratitude.
You don’t need to wait for these big events in life to remind you of what is important and to feel more grateful for what you have. You can intentionally set limits on how you live your life for short periods of time and you can choose to consciously delay gratification.
How often do you allow yourself to go without or to wait? Do you buy what you like when you like or do you wait for a special occasion to indulge? If you enjoy driving, do you ever intentionally stop using your car and instead travel by public transport or walk? If you love certain foods or drinks, like coffee or chocolate, do you ever give them up for a week or longer?
Delaying gratification not only enhances your appreciation and enjoyment of experiences, it can also help you to be more successful. In Psychology Today, Ilene Cohen in her article, The Benefits of Delaying Gratification, writes, “Studies show that delayed gratification is one of the most effective personal traits of successful people. People who learn how to manage their need to be satisfied in the moment thrive more in their careers, relationships, health and finances than people who give in to it.”
Often, what is needed to achieve a goal is to make choices that favour long-term gains over short-term gains. While you may have the freedom to choose many options in life, being able to make decisions that require delayed gratification can place you in a position of power to make better decisions for your future
Making meaningful choices
Delaying gratification involves a choice and is a reflection of perceived value. When you are faced with a situation where you don’t have the freedom to have everything, you also need to make a choice between multiple options. By making a choice, you are actively engaging with your values and making decisions that reflect what truly matters to you.
Scarcity forces you to make choices that reflect your highest values and desires. Imagine if you were only given one day off a year from work … what would you do? Would you spend time with friends and family? Would you jump on a plane and fly somewhere new for the day? Would you sit under a tree and get lost in a book?
What you choose says a lot about who you are and what matters to you. By making decisions that reflect your highest values, they become more meaningful, special and memorable. When I was chronically sick, I didn’t have the energy to do everything I wanted to do. During that time I became very good at saying no to things that didn’t excite me, make me happy or weren’t aligned with my values.
Not having unlimited energy and freedom to do whatever I liked meant my choices started to better reflect who I was, what mattered to me and what I wanted for my future. Scarcity allowed me to better understand my skills and my life goals as well as myself. Scarcity increased my focus, my authenticity and, ultimately, my health and happiness.
While you may have the freedom to choose many options in life, being able to make decisions that require delayed gratification can place you in a position of power to make better decisions for your future.
What limits and restrictions do you have on your freedom at the moment? How have these limitations enhanced other areas of your life, your decision-making process, your self-knowledge and your direction in life?
While scarcity can promote more meaningful choices, not having too much choice can also lead to more happiness. In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz says, “There is no denying that choice improves the quality of our lives … Choice is essential to autonomy, which is absolutely fundamental to wellbeing … On the other hand, the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better.”
Have you ever wanted to buy something and then become overwhelmed by all the choice? Have you ever felt pressured to get the decision “right” in the face of so much choice? Schwartz says, “There is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination and variety; we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress and dissatisfaction.”
On the surface, limitations can appear to be negative and to be holding you back, but they can also bring positive change and a valuable shift in perspective. One area most people would love more freedom is time. But is time scarcity such a bad thing, either?
Valuing time scarcity
While time allows you to take on more tasks (and ideally to get them done with more ease and less pressure), time scarcity can also be a positive limitation in life. When I became a mum I was nervous about how my lack of free time would impact on my ability to work and get things done. However, I discovered that working in the small pockets of time when my son was asleep actually increased my productivity.
By losing the “luxury of time” I became far more focused and determined. I was forced to get clear on what needed to be done first, I solved problems faster and I let go of my unhelpful perfectionistic standards. Focus is the key to productivity and one thing time scarcity does is focus the brain, fast. Having strict time limits is not a hindrance but one way to improve focus and productivity.
It’s the darkness that allows you to appreciate the light. It’s the times of scarcity that allow you to savour the good and abundant times. It’s your limitations that drive you to focus, think creatively and problem-solve. It’s your restrictions that allow you to build desire, to appreciate and to enjoy.
The assumption that you need lots of time to achieve and succeed isn’t entirely true. While an abundance of time can feel good, it can also stop you from focusing, thinking creatively, prioritising and completing tasks. Is there something you have been putting off because you don’t think you have enough time? How could you utilise time limits to increase your focus and determination and make a start on this project?
It’s tempting to view limits and restrictions in a negative light and to desire to be free from them. Limitations, however, play an important role in life. It’s the darkness that allows you to appreciate the light. It’s the times of scarcity that allow you to savour the good and abundant times. It’s your limitations that drive you to focus, think creatively and problem-solve. It’s your restrictions that allow you to build desire, to appreciate and to enjoy.
Knowing that your limitations don’t hold you back but provide you with perspective, gratitude, wonder, appreciation and joy, you have the power to re-frame the way you live and how you view your life.