eat. write. smile.

– three things I love to do. Come with!

Why do we want so much choice, anyway?

I’m going to post two videos we had to watch for my Introduction to Gastronomy course, and my journal entry response. The videos were meant to be thought-provoking, and here I am, one full week and several assignments later, still contemplating what they mean.

The first video is a talk by the writer Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point). He claims that we are happier because we have choice in our lives.

The second video is a rebuttal by Barry Schwartz, a professor of Social Theory at Swarthmore College, who believes that too much choice actually makes us unhappy. Too many choices leave us bewildered and paralyzed and eventually produce self-doubt.

Gladwell’s talk is compelling; he reminds us that to celebrate our differences is to celebrate life. But, if you have ever stood in the toothpaste aisle at the grocery store for 15 minutes like I have, absolutely dumbfounded by the choice between Arm and Hammer and Crest Complete Care, then you know what Barry Schwartz is talking about.

If you have a moment, watch them. They’re wildly entertaining speakers, and their talks cut to core of our search for happiness. Please comment too; I’d love to hear if people agree, or if you think I have my head up my rear end on this one.

Below is my journal entry.

Though many people had a negative reaction to Barry Schwartz’ TED talk, I found his argument to be quite compelling. His quarrel is not with choice itself, but rather the sheer number of choices in our lives. Schwartz doesn’t claim that choice leads to paralysis, but rather he argues that we have too much choice. Additionally, had Schwartz been given more time to speak, he might have argued that the proliferation of choice is indicative of a larger problem. Instead of feeling cornered by his talk, we, as his audience, are meant think about why we want these choices, why personalized lattes with three pumps of vanilla syrup, no bubbles, are going to make us happy, why we clamor for choice. Schwartz wants us to consider what this American need for choice truly represents.

The answer that comes to mind is our selfish values. One student plainly said, in response to customers’ inane requests at his Starbucks job, “But what about me?!” We are an individualistic culture, concerned first and foremost with ourselves. As Chef Briwa noted in class, Europeans are much more committed to communal eating values than Americans. Instead, we value what I want, not what is best for the group, what is best for the environment, or what is even available. When we say we want more choice, particularly when we talk about food, we are often saying, “I am the most important thing, my preferences should be catered to, my needs fulfilled.”

Perhaps this selfishness stems from the lack of choice in our work lives. This connection became clear to me when I re-visited Michael Pollan’s article, “No One Cooks Here Anymore,” (New York Times Magazine, August 2, 2009), a biting critique on take-out and ‘Top Chef.’ Explaining why Americans spend less and less time in the kitchen, Pollan notes that we work a lot more than we used to, a total of “167 hours- the equivalent of a month’s full time labor- to the total amount of time we spend at work each year.” Suddenly, we are working one more month but it’s still a 12 month year. The demands of our jobs leave us with no choice, but we should be thrilled that Subway now bakes bread in six varieties; garden herb, no way!

Instead of focusing on choice, an empty buzzword now that it’s been claimed by big business and politicians, shouldn’t we focus on just being happy with what we’ve got? I don’t need seventeen kinds of tomato sauce; I’m just happy to be having dinner with my family. I don’t need forty possible crust configurations for my pizza; I’m just glad I don’t live in Haiti right now. I am no Buddhist monk and serenity now often escapes me, yet we can try. Instead of saying, “I want it my way, and I want it now,” shouldn’t we just be thankful we were invited to the feast in the first place? Wouldn’t we all be a lot happier then?

For these reasons, Pollan, Schwartz and I are of the same mind, really. We should cook more because it puts us outside ourselves; we start to consider the needs of others, and we are happier for it. Gladwell’s argument that the proliferation of choice has made us happier neglects the root of the problem; we shouldn’t be unhappy people in the first place. Perhaps we should return to that grateful, convivial mentality, and recognize that we are lucky, that the good of the group is better than solely that of the individual. Perhaps then we will have chosen to be happier.

One comment on “Why do we want so much choice, anyway?

  1. Patrick M
    February 11, 2010

    Well said. I would only add that choice can be a good thing in the sense that it is a by-product of competition which accelerates innovation. But I guess that circles back to the idea that having the most innovative chef's knife is a luxury that doesn't necessarily make us happier.

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This entry was posted on February 11, 2010 by in Uncategorized.
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