A boss works fourteen hour days and thrives on it. He builds his company and gets rewarded for it. A secretary works the same fourteen hour day and hates every second of it.
A creative, free thinking girl loves her art class. The boy beside her, forced to take it to graduate, wishes he were temporarily dead.
A high-value, attractive guy starts dating one of the cutest and nicest girls at work. He loves the relationship. Another guy at the same job is too shy to talk to anybody, and hasn’t been in a good relationship for two years, except for going on a few dates with women he wasn’t attracted to.
These examples illustrate a concept called “decision latitude.” Happiness most often occurs when we have the freedom to make our own decisions which align with our values.
I have seen it in every endeavor I’ve undertaken: people forced to do an activity or hold to a belief, whether through external or internal pressures, are often miserable. Those who choose their paths of their own free will are much happier. In the United States, there are large numbers of depressed and anxious people. I haven’t seen a study, but it likely corresponds to the number of people who have no control in their lives, where their external actions are far removed from their internal values and desires.
The first area where most men lack decision latitude is their jobs. I think the main character in the movie Office Space, Peter Gibbons, nicely sums this up. He hates working weekends but knows he’ll be forced by his boss. He lacks the ability to say no without consequences.
Most men are in similar circumstances, working jobs they hate. But, the need for money or general societal pressure keeps them stuck in a horribly stressful situation. Executives, like US Presidents experience a lot of stress, but they have the pay and latitude to manage it.
A lot of men also lack decision latitude in their family lives. They are often driven by wives, children, and other family members to act a certain way. For example, a man may hate his job and it may be killing him, but he works long hours because his wife wants to drive a brand new SUV and his kids need to go to private school. Or, maybe he feels he can’t make certain choices because he would disappoint his father.
Sometimes there’s a lack of decision latitude because of ideals. People are raised in a way that severely restricts their choices. Guilt from extreme religious doctrines, family ideologies, and other sources of rules can severely hamper people from making beneficial (and joy inducing) decisions that line up with their actual values (versus beliefs superimposed by others). In many cases, there is no awareness that these beliefs are even imposed on them, and that they don’t align with what a person wants.
And finally, many people lack decision latitude socially. Most people genuinely desire deep and meaningful relationships, both friendships and romantic relationships. However, sometimes many barriers exist that limit decision latitude in these areas. We see this play out dramatically in fictional romantic tragedies (like Romeo and Juliet), but also more subtly in real life, when families, society, timing, etc., get in the way of actual happiness. For example, interracial and homosexual relationships were once officially forbidden in the United States and the choice was either settle into a show relationship, or turn the relationship into a secret.
Sometimes this lack of latitude results because of a person’s own choices, like being unattractive, shy, or simply being unable to compete in a competitive dating marketplace where all the cute and cool people seem to be perpetually “taken.” The result is either outright unhappiness by having few friendships and romantic relationships, or the more subtle and lingering unhappiness of settling with someone while pining for “the one that got away.” While some guys may literally have the choice of ten women because of their looks and personality, getting to choose the best one, other less attractive guys start to feel so limited in options they may opt to date someone who is totally wrong for them. Once again, decision latitude = happiness.
So, if you want to be successful and happy, then it’s important to take steps each day to increase decision latitude in your life. It could be starting a business, standing up to your family members, refusing to settle and take that romantic risk. The key is to think about your core values and starting to question any long held, but unhelpful, thought patterns and actions you take that might be decreasing your decision latitude.