102.1 KAHM: How Freedom of Choice Might Be Diminishing Your Happiness
There is pretty much only one radio station I listen to while I’m in my car. Unless I’m in an unusual mood or there is a song that I really like playing on another station that I happen to run into while I’m changing to this one, I usually don’t listen to anything else. This station is 102.1 KAHM calm radio. It’s the one where all the hosts talk in soft British accents and the music basically consists of crappy jazz, weird instrumental versions of famous songs that use all the wrong instruments, obscure oldies, and basically anything you would expect to hear in a hotel elevator. Yes. I am that person.
I cannot express how much I love this radio station. It shapes my entire driving experience. It’s super relaxing and makes everything feel awesomely cinematic. It makes every drive feel like it belongs in a movie like Manchester by the Sea or something of the like. It is weirdly re-orienting for me. I love it. And yet—I would never willingly choose to listen to this radio station anywhere else. Why?
Once I actually started thinking about this very simple question, I realized that the answer was also very simple. Simple, but haunting. The first thing I realized is that I often enjoy listening to KAHM more than I enjoy listening to the music I actually love most. I often enjoy it more than the things I listen to on Spotify. And yet the things I listen to on Spotify are my favorite songs. They are infinitely better than anything played on KAHM. So, again, why do I usually enjoy KAHM more?
Here is where things get simple: I don’t have a choice.
When I listen to KAHM, I am only listening to it because it is the only channel that even remotely resembles the kind of music I love. I’m not usually into popular music. I like instrumental music, movie soundtracks, jazz, oldies, and heck, even opera. So if I’m going to listen to a radio station, this is pretty much the only one that won’t drive me crazy. I could listen to other stations, but there aren’t any other stations that I consistently enjoy. So, in the case of picking a radio station, while I do technically have a choice, none of the other choices are choices that I would choose. And even if you accept these choices-that-I-would-never-choose as choices nonetheless, let it suffice to say that the number of choices I have on my radio versus the number of choices I have on Spotify is exponentially smaller. So if you can’t accept that I don’t have choice, you can at least accept that I have a very limited choice.
So there is the first place where I don’t really have a choice. Here is the second: on KAHM I don’t get to decide what song plays next. I have absolutely no control over that.
All of this is very different from Spotify. On Spotify, I have millions of choices at the click of a button. I can choose from thousands upon thousands of different genres, playlists, stations, albums, artists, et cetera. The choices are endless.
But how does all this answer my question? That’s simple. The excess of choices I have on Spotify diminishes my enjoyment of whatever song I choose, and the absence of choices I have on KAHM enhances the enjoyment of whatever song is playing that I did not choose. On Spotify, I am in total control. I get to pick all the songs I listen to and in what order. Thus, when I’m listening to one song, the thing that is on my mind is not that one song but which song I’m going to listen to next. Because I have a choice of what song to play next, I am not fully engaged with the song that is currently playing. Its beauty is therefore diminished because it only gets half of my attention—and when its beauty is diminished so is my enjoyment of it. I even often find myself switching to different songs halfway through songs that I really like. This is very different from listening to KAHM. On KAHM, I’m not thinking about what song I’m going to listen to next because I don’t have a choice. I’m not skipping ahead to the next song because I can’t. Instead, I am able to fully engage myself in the song that is currently playing, and because I am able to do so, I pick up on much more of its beauty than I otherwise would. I would never choose to listen to the songs they play on KAHM on Spotify because if I had a choice I would not appreciate the beauty that they have. My lack of choice is precisely the thing that makes these songs beautiful—or rather, allows me to enjoy their beauty more fully. Thus, these songs that are less beautiful than the songs I love most are made more beautiful by the very fact that I don’t have nearly as many choices regarding them.
As Americans we have the tendency to prize freedom of choice over everything else. We think that a life without the freedom of choice in every single area would be a life that is not worth living. But this simple reflection on a radio station has me wondering if we often have too much freedom of choice in America. Are there other areas in my life where I have too many choices? Does the freedom of choice diminish beauty? … Would I be happier if I didn’t have as many choices?