The Paradox of Choice

A little while ago, I was listening to a message by Rob Bell, from the Mars Hill Bible Church podcast and he mentioned a book that sounded very interesting - The Paradox of Choice. I checked the book out from the library and found it quite fascinating. The overall premise is that Americans are generally less happy, more depressed and more stressed out - in part because we have so much choice.
Barry Schwartz is a Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. He argues that Americans are overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices we have to make and, he submits, tends to lend itself to more overall regret, disappointment and depression.
Take shopping for a car as an example. What are the aspects you are looking for - safety, gas mileage, longevity, warranty, overall appearance, just to name a few. Well there are so many different options within each of those aspects that it takes all you have to make a decision. Then, as soon as you make up your mind and purchase the best one, you hear, read or find out that you could have made a better choice with a different car - hence the term, buyer's remorse.
But not all choice is bad, Dr. Schwartz argues, just the excess with which we are confronted everyday. He argues that we would be better off if:
  • we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them
  • we sought what was "good enough" instead of seeking the best
  • we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions
  • the decisions we made were nonreversible
  • we paid less attention to what others around us were doing
One of the concepts I really appreciated from Dr. Schwartz were his thoughts on comparison . When people compare themselves to others, it it 99% of the time someone who has more than they do. Dr. Schwartz offers a comic to illustrate this in which a man is talking to his wife on his cell phone and says, "I was sad because I had no on-board fax until I saw a man who had no mobile phone." I tend to do upward comparison myself. For a while now, I have really wanted an iPod. I have a cell phone (which I got for free) with which I can listen to music and podcasts, but it wasn't enough. I wanted an iPod - and everywhere I went I saw people who had them. But I had something perfectly serviceable. Even if I didn't, is it a necessity, is it a right? No. So I told my wife that I will get an iPod when we have saved enough for our soon to be born child's college education.
This book will help you look at the choices we make and the decisions we come to. I highly recommend it (it should be at your local library).

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