Could having endless choices make us restless, irritable and discontent?

May 10, 2010

“I need a rubber soul.”

While I was hosting the Obies in Arizona I had a moment of downtime by the pool. Sans reading material, I asked a young hostess if she had any magazines. Instead the girl offered me a worn copy of a book she claimed to have read three times: The Paradox of Choice (Why More is Less) by Barry Schwartz. She said I could keep it.

While I only had time to read the first few pages, Schwartz’ premise that the “culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction” captivated me. Deep down I’ve always felt –in spite of being a capitalist and an ad man- that having too many choices makes life chaotic. Mine anyway. Here was a book espousing the same idea!

I will read it… But only after I finish Ian McEwan’s riveting new novel, Solar. McEwan is among our greatest living authors. His novel, Saturday is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Then again, I’ve been meaning to begin Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, whom I consider to be one of the best dead authors of the 20th century. After all, I’d just re-read an anthology of his short stories. On the other hand, my brother recently sent me a terrific sounding zombie novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. He knows all too well my penchant for such ghoulish delights. In addition, I have three more books, which I clicked to own via Amazon. They are sitting on top of a pile of magazines: Details, GQ, Esquire and Dwell; all of which I fully intend to read. If only I’d get off the damn computer…

To be able to access all these titles is surely a blessing. But the pressure to keep up is real. In high school and college we were given a syllabus, in it a defined and finite list of books we had to read. For most of us that was all we could handle.

Upon graduation, we create our own reading list –presuming we still read. I do. However, I also love movies. Who doesn’t? I make it a point to see every best picture nominee in the Academy Awards. This year Oscar expanded that list to what, nine? How am I supposed to see all these films (not to mention the genre pictures I adore) when I only have Saturday nights to do it?

If I’d only get off the damn computer…

The computer. Like many of us, I’m hopelessly addicted to the Internet. The trade blogs, the film blogs, the book blogs, and all those I-can’t-believe they’ve-got-a-site sites. Nothing says choice like the Information Superhighway. Damn you Al Gore for enriching my life! Damn you too, Apple computers, for creating such glorious shiny, silver hardware. I love my laptop. Should I buy the Ipad, too? Or wait another year to let them get the bugs out? I don’t even have an Iphone. Yet.

I already mentioned the great digital river known as Amazon. I can and do get anything I want -fast, cheap, easy and with unmatched quality assurance. Do you like Ebay, Craig’s List and Zappos? Or is there another site, one that really knows you…and what you like?

Am I missing anything? Wait a minute! That’s the big question, isn’t it? Are we missing anything? The answer is of course we are. And that makes us nervous. Restless. Irritable. Discontent. Every day is like New Year’s Eve. No matter which party we choose we end up missing the other one. The better one. Even if not invited we know it’s there. And we’re not. Sheer agony!

But, you say, I prefer choice to the alternative. Really? Versus a menu with eighty-bazillion selections, don’t you find it a pleasure when a restaurant has only a few dishes to choose from? The chef has chosen for you. Picking one from three is a no-lose situation. It’s even relaxing and enjoyable, which I think is the whole point to going out for dinner.

Schwartz opens his book by recounting a visit to the Gap to buy blue jeans. Instead of just having to find his size, which is daunting enough, he is faced with myriad styles to choose from: boot cut, relaxed fit, skinny, distressed, button fly or zipper. Black, brown, white or blue. And so on.

He wanted jeans. Not choices. What should have been a simple task became complicated, even fraught with peril.

Yes, freedom of choice is the American Dream. But is it turning into a nightmare?

Choices I never made: The Twilight Saga, Lost, American Idol, Real Housewives, Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother, Three and a half Men, Harry Potter, Cruise ships, Disneyland, peanut butter, tattoos, boys.

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9 Responses to “Could having endless choices make us restless, irritable and discontent?”

  1. This is a really fascinating topic. The illusion that more choices = better choices is IMO part of the compulsive consumption mindset of standard of living vs. quality of life that has ruled our psyches for 60+ years now.

    When products become commodities, (as happens when manufacturers compete on price rather than service or innovation) one cheap way they keep the cash register ringing is to keep pushing “New and Improved” or make small cosmetic changes to essentially the same product. As your jeans example above.

    As far as all the options we get from TV/Movie/Online I have had some success making good choices by only consuming things that will inspire and enlighten me, and/or things from the genre of Sci-fi. That eliminates 99.9% of the tv, 90% of the movies, and 95% of the internet out there.

  2. Edgar Allan Poe was depressed. And he DIDN’T have an impossible deadline to meet. What chance do ad folks have?

  3. walt whitman said

    poe had a deadline
    he never made it past 40
    a really impossible deadline

  4. adchick said

    I couldnt agree more. I drown in choices. I LOVE my Apple MacBookPro. I DO appreciate a refined menu. Your Choice Never Made are mine as well…except I finally got a tattoo. But one of those is just enough.

  5. I don’t know where to begin. So many elements of this discussion to dive into. I guess I’ll sum it up with this thought

    Choices should not be confused with Decision. Information does not constitute knowledge.

    Ulitmately the over abundance of choice sucks up the one thing we have full control and choice over – and it’s not how to spend our money. It’s how we spend our time. It is the single and only thing we will never get back.

    Your Choice. Your Chase. Keep on running. We’ll leave the fee on for you.

    • Tom Messner said

      (Cuban emigré and coffeeman at
      Carl Ally Incorporated, 1976)

      Why do you need a choice of donuts
      when you’re only going to have one?


      Hey, Kiki, that’s a nice line.


      I learned it in Havana.

  6. […] I’ve written about “content zombies” several times. Judging from the amount of views and comments, it’s a popular topic: Content Zombies!Endless Choices/No Time […]

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