I’m reading, off and on, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore sociologist who maintains that we contemporary Americans are so inundated with choices, in everything from picking funds for our 401(k) to ordering a coffee at a Starbucks, that it’s driving us a little nuts; that it’s making us confused and anxious and even depressed. Instead of being a liberating force in our lives, choice can enslave us if we let it.
(I found this book in the remainder rack of our local bookstore. I told my shopping companion, “You know, I’m having a hard time choosing whether to buy this book because it looks interesting and is half-price, or buy another book, or put the money into my art-fair-dangly-earring-fund, or add it to my Roth IRA contribution this month. And all these choices are leaving me feeling confused and stressful.” “Oh, buy the book,” she grinned, “and that way you can let me read it when you’re done.” That’s what friends are for.)
Now, when people start hectoring about “too many choices” I tend to go into code orange mode. Because oftentimes the people doing the hectoring are the sort of fringe lefties for whom standing in line, ration cards in hand, outside Bread Dispensary Number 1 sounds like a beautiful day in the workers’ paradise – people who think the North Koreans just need to tweak their system a little to make it work really well; or else they’re social conservatives like the female commentator I once heard (under duress) on a Christian radio station advocating a return to arranged teenage marriages for girls, the better to rid the culture of all those unpleasant outcomes associated with letting women pick their own mates, fill their heads with dangerous book-learnin’and become immodestly engaged in worldly affairs instead of submitting graciously unto their husbands and baking cookies for the church bazaar while safely cloistered in the home. (Note: I have nothing against baking cookies, and in fact do it all the time…for church even. I bet that fact would blow this radio chick’s mind. Care for a snickerdoodle, sisterfriend?)
But Schwartz is not an idealogue. He simply suggests that thoughtful people can cut through the cultural clutter by practicing self-discipline; by developing a “gratitude attitude”; by thinking about opportunity costs; by rediscovering the concept of “good enough” and practicing what he calls “satisfice”; by not comparing one’s own life and possessions with others’. It’s the same commonsense approach to living in the world that’s echoed by the Decalogue and the Buddha and Jesus and your old junior high consumer ec teacher. It’s helpful to get a periodic reality-check update, and Schwartz does just that.
“The Paradox of Choice” is a pretty good book. Probably a better investment than the earrings. I think.