Day 615: The Paradox of Choice

Third: escalation of expectations. This hit me when I went to replace my jeans. I wear jeans almost all the time. And there was a time when jeans came in one flavor, and you bought them, and they fit like crap, and they were incredibly uncomfortable, and if you wore them long enough and washed them enough times, they started to feel OK. So I went to replace my jeans after years and years of wearing these old ones, and I said, you know, "I want a pair of jeans. Here's my size." And the shopkeeper said, "Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah ..." On and on he went. My jaw dropped, and after I recovered, I said, "I want the kind that used to be the only kind." 
He had no idea what that was, so I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store -- truth! -- with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. I did better. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why? I wrote a whole book to try to explain this to myself. (Laughter) The reason I felt worse is that, with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had very low -- I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors, damn it, one of them should've been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn't perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. Adding options to people's lives can't help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that's going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they're good results. Nobody in the world of marketing knows this, because if they did, you wouldn't all know what this was about. The truth is more like this.  
The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in -- we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation -- the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness -- this is what you all came for -- the secret to happiness is low expectations. - Barry Schwartz

This topic continues from and considers a different aspect following from my previous post.

We are bombarded with all sorts of choices every day. A person living in a typical "western" lifestyle is used to having a multitude of options available in every area of life. As Barry explains though, this is not the key to happiness. The plethora of choices that we face in a day do not improve upon our lives - they make it more complicated.

Part of the problem is certainly our tendency to project and imagine what the outcome of a choice will be - often inaccurately. We spend so much time and energy imagining what our lives could be like that we are seldom in the present moment, making the most of what we have in front of us. I recommend watching the full Talk with Barry above - he gives some good examples of this.

Essentially, we are living in our imaginations, in our minds. We have completely unrealistic expectations of real life and so derive a large portion of our total satisfaction from imagining how good life could be. It's odd - we imagine about what something could be like and within that we desire to really experience it, but when the opportunity comes to experience it we end up comparing the real experience to the imagined experience. Spending so much time and energy imagining something creates a tendency within us where we do not actually take full advantage of opportunities to experience the fantasy in real life - there is this underlying belief that it will somehow magically unfold the way we imagined it without any effort or action from our part.

So yes, we are absolutely and entirely responsible for these experiences - we are responsible for this world in which there are simply a ridiculous amount of artificial choices available to us AND we are responsible for the way in which we handle and interpret these choices. We are the ones who are living in fantasies. We are the ones who are wasting our lives living in little worlds we create in our minds. No one is forcing us to do these things. Certainly we are ignorant of what we're doing and how we got here - but in this day and age, ignorance as a valid excuse is quickly fading away.

We could improve our lives drastically from taking just 2 steps:
  1. We could stop living in fantasy worlds and focus on what is here - no more expectations, judgements, comparisons that lead us to experience disappointment. This would entail developing critical thinking - being able to look at something objectively and practically and then make a choice from there. I don't mean that we should live like robots - I mean that our emotional experiences should not be controlling our lives.
  2. We can change our economy in such a way that the products available to us are useful, of a good quality, have good life spans, are adequate in variety BUT there there are not hundreds of options for one simple product. We need to find a balance in variety and practicality - not just for our own sanity but also for the sustainability of our lifestyles on Earth. 
So much of our lifestyle has become superficial - our focus is all on the appearance and fantasy of things and not on the reality. Our lives are empty - we are constantly chasing after dreams that we can never attain. We need to let go of the dreams and realise everything we have at our fingertips - we need to realise the potential within us to create a meaningful life for ourselves.