Friday, April 27, 2007

Choose Your Illusion

I just finished an amazing, life-altering book.

Well, that's not exactly true. My wife, Summer, does all the reading in our family because I have to spend my free time in the wilderness foraging for nuts and berries.

But the book has changed my life anyway because Summer is suddenly less annoying.

Let me first state that my wife is the most beautiful, amazing human being imaginable and I am profoundly lucky to even live in the same town that she does. If women were gasoline, she would be 93-Octane Premium Unleaded with Patented Detergent Additive.

But this book, The Paradox of Choice, has made her even better. The author, Barry Schwartz, explains how having too many choices in everyday life actually makes us less happy.

Many Americans are what Schwartz calls “Maximizers,” people who want to examine all their options and make the best possible decision in every situation.

Summer is a Maximizer. Just the other night, we spent 25 minutes at the department store trying to decide which shower curtain to buy – the red one, the red one with wrinkly texture, the red one with gold embroidery, or the funky-colored striped one.

“It's a big decision,” she kept saying, as if the consequences of purchasing a Wal-Mart shower curtain could follow us into the afterlife.

Of course, I am the opposite of a Maximizer, what Schwartz refers to as a “Satisficer,” one who will, in any situation, pick the most convenient and readily available option.

Mortgage Broker: “So, do you want the 30-year fixed, or the 20-year Adjustable Financial Wedgie of Doom?”

Me: “Whatever's handy... we're going destitute either way.”

The Paradox of Choice is on my side. Schwartz says Maximizers end up regretting most of the choices they make, and the time it took to make them (whereas Satisficers live care-free, happy-go-lucky lives, at least until the hangover hits).

It's nice to have one area of conflict in my marriage about which I'm actually right. Of course, the real villain is not my wife, but a consumerist culture that markets excess to the point of absurdity.

In Chapter 1, Schwartz recounts a trip to the supermarket, where he found 85 varieties of crackers, including 20 different types of Goldfish, along with 95 options for chips, 80 different pain relievers, 40 kinds of toothpaste, and 175 different salad dressings, including 16 types of “Italian.”

By having to choose among all these items, many people experience subconscious anxiety (“What if I don't choose the right one?”), buyer's remorse (“Should I have gotten the other one?”), and an empty dissatisfaction with life in general (“Why can't I just try them all?”).

Call me crazy (you won't be the first), but this is a lot to go through for some crackers.

There's no changing what capitalism does to our supermarkets. But at least my wife is more aware of her habits. She has taken a month to decide what shade of green to paint the kitchen (Dill Pickle, Bright Pear, or Poplar Leaf?), but she managed to plant a shrub yesterday after only 10 minutes' deliberation on its exact location.

Any book that can do that ought to win a Pulitzer Prize.

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