Friday, November 5, 2010

November to Remember: The Paradox of Choice

The United States is the envy of the world because of the number of options we have to choose from on a given day. Think about the aisles of any market you enter and the sheer variety of: toilet paper, chewing gum, cleaners, boxed cereal, pasta forms, fresh goods, freezers, t-shirts, pencils, towels, screwdrivers and beach towels. For those of us who have been raised in this country, we often look up and down and STILL can't find something that suits us. For those of us born in developing nations, we look up and down the aisle spending hours choosing, or walk away; the task is too daunting.

Even if I could find the product I wanted, would it be the right price? If it was the right price, would I need to check for a list of substances recently discovered to cause illness, deformity, or poor water quality? If it met those criteria, am I certain that the shop across town doesn't have a better price? My criteria continue to grow and argue with one another. I'm running out of time and just need a shampoo that will clean my hair, refresh my emotional well-being,take care of the environments and equal exchange farmers and give me rockstar confidence.

I make my selection, but on the way home, I wonder, was that the right thing to do? Should I just lather up with a bar of soap and send my extra income to UNICEF? Such is the LUXURY of being a citizen with expendable income in the United States. Yet, increasingly research shows that myself and others are less content, less satisfied, and less happy even as more and more options (how ever beneficial or negligible) are presented to us.

As it turns out, someone has studied this. In his book, "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less", Barry Schwartz tests human satisfaction with making a choice between few or many options. The science shows that the more we have to choose from, the less content we are with the choice we make. Additionally, we begin to NOT make choices, rather abandoning the process, when it seems too daunting to sort it all out. Great discontent and unhappiness follows quickly behind it all.

It's an informative read, especially for citizens of a pro-consumer culture, but I took away a simple discipline for any choice I need to make. Given any array of options, I give myself three and choose one. Despite how it feels to be in a downturn economy, if I have a roof, some food, some heat, some clothes, some CLEAN water or heck, just 3 out of 5, I have more than most of the world has on a daily basis. If I counted my spare change jar, I have a week's wages of most developing countries' families. Why lose sanity over whether to buy Starbuck's, Seattle's Best, Dunkin' Donuts or Eight O'Clock in whole, espresso grind, drip grind, or percolator grind, roasted to the best French, breakfast, or tropical morning standards? It's absurd. I choose cheaply and leave quickly.

Today I am thankful for the abundance that my life in this time and place offers AND that I am encouraged to discipline myself to be content in all circumstances.

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