THE PARADOX OF CHOICE: WHY LESS IS MORE
Barry Schwartz
New York: Harper Perennial, 2005
304 pp.; $13.95 (paper)

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I’M AN INEPT COOK, and so grocery stores tend to induce mild flutters of anxiety. What is a “bunch” of parsley? A “sprig” of thyme? And how on earth can you tell if an avocado is ripe? But today I’ve come to the store armed with an idiot-proof shopping list: salt, milk, olive oil, sweet potatoes. I’m feeling good, even buoyant. How can I go wrong? With my little basket, I stride to the produce aisle. And there the smile fades from my lips. Before me: nothing less than six varieties of sweet potatoes and yams, each a different size and shade and exotic name. Minutes pass, shoppers dart around me, and I stand there motionless, transfixed, blinking with indecision. As I often do in times of crisis, I grow irrational. I panic. Like Noah before the flood, I put six different sweet potatoes in my basket—a small orphanage of the potato world—and I turn with sunken shoulders from the vegetable stand. It’s a low moment.

The decision, sure enough, is a lousy one but the anxiety is not apparently unusual. We inhabit a world of seemingly infinite choices, but as sociologist Barry Schwartz argues in his latest book, The Paradox of Choice, these come at a price. The dirty little secret of the modern economy is that while we think having more options will make us happier, in fact it may do the opposite. Too many yams might be a bad thing.

Though we have more things now than our parents did, and more possibilities for our lives, we are not necessarily happier. The American gross domestic product has doubled in the last thirty years, but the portion of the population that describes itself as “very happy” has declined by five percent. Meanwhile the rate of serious clinical depression has more than tripled over the past two generations, as has the teen suicide rate. Schwartz argues that the source of much of this unhappiness lies in the overwhelming abundance of choices we’re faced with. It’s an argument that seems, on its face, counterintuitive. We’ve always been told that more is better. What’s wrong with having options?

To begin with, says Schwartz, we’re inundated with them. Choices confront us in every area of our lives, from what to pick up at the grocery store to what college to attend, what job to take, what partner to choose, what medical advice to follow, what retirement plan to select. And if we want to make the right choices, as we all invariably do, we must invest no small amount of time and mental energy in weighing our options. Choosing a brand of toothpaste may offer no great dilemma, but the cumulative effect of all the choices we face can be disabling. “As a culture we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.”

The irony is that for all our freedom to choose, we’re rather bad at it. Schwartz cites the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who showed that what we remember about past experiences is determined, almost always, by how those experiences felt at their peak (whether bad or good) and how they felt at their end. So if, for instance, we attend an otherwise boring party but the party ends with a great conversation, we’re liable to remember the evening in a positive way. Our memories are rather predictably fallible, and thus it is very often the case that what we think we want is not what we actually want.

There are other ways in which we make for poor decision-makers. We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy (or unhappy) in the future. We’re unduly influenced by vivid information and anecdotal evidence (we tend to vastly overestimate the number of deaths caused by violent crime, for instance). And we’re risk-averse when it comes to potential gains, but risk-seeking when it comes to potential losses, in part because the psychological impact of losing is much greater than that of winning; we hate to lose, and so we double our bets when the cards fall against us.

But even if we make the right choices, the pleasure we derive from our decisions tends to dissipate with time, a phenomenon Schwartz calls “hedonic adaptation.” Simply put, we get used to the things that make us happy, and their power to deliver happiness ebbs. To illustrate this, Schwartz uses the famous and rather extreme example of lottery winners and accident victims. Respondents were asked to rate their happiness on a 5-point scale. Some of them had won between $50,000 and $1 million in state lotteries within the last year. Others had become paraplegic or quadriplegic as a result of accidents. Not surprisingly, the lottery winners were happier than those who had become paralyzed. What is surprising, though, is that the lottery winners were no happier than people in general. And what is even more surprising is that the accident victims, while somewhat less happy than people in general, still judged themselves to be happy.

That we adapt to pleasure (or pain) is something we all know intuitively. We pine for a new car, and when it first arrives in our driveway we’re thrilled. A week later the pleasure quotient has already lessened, and within a year we’re complaining about the clutch and looking with hungry eyes upon our neighbor’s new Saab. It’s a losing game, but one we nonetheless play—in the hope that this time things will be different. “Faced with this inevitable disappointment, what do people do?” asks Schwartz. “Some simply give up the chase and stop valuing pleasure derived from things. Most are driven instead to pursue novelty, to seek out new commodities and experiences whose pleasure potential has not been dissipated by repeated exposure. In time, these new commodities also will lose their intensity, but people still get caught up in the chase.”

This might seem obvious if you’ve ever looked in your closet to find a new dress or jacket hanging unworn on the rack months after purchase, but the implications of Schwartz’s arguments are nonetheless radical and, in a sense, deeply conservative. If we take the goal of human progress to be the furtherance of happiness and not simply the expansion of choice, then the evidence suggests that our society is failing us, despite its robust economy, or perhaps because of it. Schwartz concedes that, of course, a basic level of choice is also a requirement for happiness—totalitarian states, with their dearth of options, are equally ineffective at producing happiness. But he cites the case of the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who, despite a carefully bounded social order with narrow options for how one can live one’s life, have a rate of depression less than 20 percent that of the national rate. Schwartz also makes the case that free-market debates have little impact on actual happiness. “Studies comparing the well-being of people living in different cultures have shown that substantial differences between cultures in the consumption opportunities they make available to people have very small effects on peoples’ satisfaction with their lives.”

What has any of this to do with Buddhism? Well, nothing and everything. To be sure, the bliss of enlightenment described in Buddhist texts is of an order above the concerns of the modern consumer. The ultimate aims of Buddhism are radical—the extinguishing of desire itself, to take one example—and it’s hard to imagine the Buddha pausing on his alms rounds to consider the purchase points of, say, several pairs of sandals. But for those of us who have not renounced the worldly life, and who seek to make a kind of peace with the swirling consumerism that surrounds us, Schwartz’s book serves as a useful field guide to dukkha, or suffering. And given that many of us pursue our religious practices with the same sort of acquisitiveness that we do other aspects of life—shopping for the best zafu, the best mantra, the best teacher—we’d do well to pay attention to Schwartz’s cautionary words.

ALL OF THIS IS OF small comfort at the checkout counter, where my parade of sweet potatoes is drawing doubtful glances from the man ahead of me in line. And looking upon my pitiful cache of indecision, it’s hard not to feel bad for myself. But then I catch sight of a woman in the bakery aisle, spellbound by shelves of bread. In a shopping cart behind her, her daughter is about to fling a carton of orange juice to the ground, but the woman is oblivious. She’s staring at sourdoughs, lost in choice. And I realize: I am not alone. In a world of infinite decisions, there are others like myself—fallen travelers on the road of excess. For a moment, it’s almost enough to make me happy.

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