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The Paradox of Choice


The Paradox of Choice is the title of a book by Barry Schwartz that was recently brought to my attention but I’ve yet to read. The concept is something that has been on mind for a while.

Someone once told me that happiness is the presence of choice.

At the time, I bought it. It seemed like a concise and appropriate view of the world. To be without choice, forced into a particular path with no option for change, doesn’t seem like a recipe for happiness.

But can we have too much of a good thing?

I started to wonder as I stood in the supermarket aisle comparing cereals. Ingredients, nutrition information, price. Ten minutes I stood there, trapped in the dry foods section, picking up box after box, bag after bag, just to put them down again. I was stressing – how much sugar? organic? can I pay that much?  Finally, breaking my hypnosis, I grabbed a box and moved on. The same cereal I always get. Before I beat myself up for my indecisiveness, I started to examine the other aisles. I wasn’t alone – zombies stood in front of jam, milk and bread.

If there had been one type of cereal, I would have bought it, without debate, and moved on with my life. One type of jam, milk and bread, and the supermarket would have been full of happy people whisking through their chore, suddenly finding thirty extra minutes to enjoy themselves. Their minds, released from the bombardment of choice, the constant noise of information, suddenly free to create.

I am among a highly privileged group of young adults today that have more choice than anyone before us. Not just at Safeway, but in life. We grew up in comfortable neighborhoods, went to good schools. We’ve been empowered, supported, and believed in. We can do anything we set our minds to.

We get it. We’re not ungrateful, we understand how priveleged we are, and want to take full advantage. Still, many of my generation are unhappy with their direction, not sure of what to do, or where to take our lives. Why?

Ironically, I think our appreciation of choice is the problem.

Change is too easy.  It’s an epidemic of greener grass on the other side. That’s not new; everyone’s path has imperfections, and a better option just over the hill. But never has change been so obtainable. It’s ease has caused distracted minds and flimsy attention spans. So we jump – from place to place, job to job, thought to thought; and so, never dedicate ourselves.

Our biggest challenge is focus. My peers are a very driven group, and when our attention is wholeheartedly directed, we achieve. But to reach this level of focus takes an active effort on our parts to limit our perceived choices.

Temptation is flying at us from every direction, but perhaps happiness is in the cereal right in front of our face.

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