As an emigrant am I always going to ask, what if?

I’m paralysed by choice, constantly looking over my shoulder wondering should I stay in the US, move back to Ireland, or somewhere else?

Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist, gave a popular Ted Talk discussing the paradox of choice as one that paralyses not frees, and that dissatisfies rather than pleases.

When I was 16 years old, as a result of my parents' jobs, I relocated to the United States. Early on, I made my mind up that I would return to Ireland for college, leaving where I lived after that to be determined.

Late into my degree, as many of my friends desperately applied for the visa lottery, panicked in order to file their J-1s in time and lamented their inability to move without a sponsor, I realised I would be mad not to take advantage of the privilege my parents had afforded me; a green card.

So, after graduation from Trinity with a business degree, I took up in Chicago with a well-paying job, an apartment I could afford and a well-established career ladder to climb. I have no constraints on my existence here in the US as a result of immigration law. I am not subject to reapplication processes, quotas, or potential deportation. I have all of the rights of a citizen outside of voting and for that, I am incredibly grateful.


It is this, however, that brings me back to Barry Schwartz. His paradox is explained as follows: when you have more options to choose from, you are less likely to end up satisfied with any decision as it is too easy to imagine that you could have made another choice that would have had a better outcome. The person making the choice finds it easier to regret the decision they have made, and that regret then subtracts from the satisfaction they may have felt, even if it was a good decision. He argues that instead, the person ends up focusing on the attractive features of the alternative they reject. This best summarises my experience with emigration.

While living in Ireland for college, I focused on the variety and size of industries in the US, knowing it held more for my potential career development. I saw Ireland as too small and insular to satisfy me long-term and longed to begin a life in the “Land of Opportunity”.

But when I returned to live in the US, my days became punctuated by questions of “what if?” I now find myself jaded by the American experience, where I feel the need to constantly smile and express how awesome everything is, acquiescing to enthusiastically discuss how Irish my acquaintances are and constantly repeating myself because my accent is “too funny”. Now, I yearn for Irish culture.

I know that in the US my opportunities are greater, fiscally and otherwise, and many of the people I have met are genuine and welcoming, but I cannot help but experience pangs of regret. Homesickness, too; I still travel 30 minutes out of my way to find the only supermarket that stocks Flahavan’s Oats, and I miss my friends and family.

But more than that, I wonder about how different my job would be if I were back in Dublin and whether it would be better. I wonder how different my social life would be in Dublin, and whether it would be better. I don’t know the answer, and thus I cannot say definitively if I would be any happier, but as Schwartz suggests, the lingering questions are enough to subtract from the satisfaction from the decision I have made.

There is also a feeling that my choices are subject to a timer; how long until it wouldn’t be worth moving back? How long until it would be worth moving back? By then, would my friends themselves have emigrated? Worse still, I am acutely aware that should I return to Ireland, more than likely I will begin to feel the exact regret towards the opportunities I would be foregoing in the US.

I have massively enjoyed my time in the US. I live in an amazing city I discover more of every day, I have been able to travel to other states, I have met great people both professionally and personally, but I now live in a trade-off that exists purely because I emigrated. I know what it is like to live in multiple countries, and through my connections in each, I am continually reminded of the differences, both good and bad.

I have caught myself wondering if it would be easier if I had never emigrated in the first place, and the fact that my immigration status means that every day I stay here is a choice, it is one that can sometimes feel like a burden. However, as I wake up every morning, reassured that my choice remains, I am reminded of how choice is a factor of freedom, and I remember how lucky I really am.