Today I found this interesting lecture by Professor Barry Schwartz, a Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. Professor Schwartz makes a compelling argument that the abundance of choice in modern society, rather than bringing about satisfaction and happiness, has tended to cause greater frustration, confusion and disappointment. The glut of options has created a society based on unrealistic expectation and regret. I invite you to listen to the lecture and leave your comments. I have also included a transcript of the lecture.What Schwartz talks about is all very much like my experience with cable television. Before cable, we somehow got along perfectly well with only four or five network channels. I am sure young people today would wither and die at the very idea of it but it did force networks to come up with decent programming in the end. Still the notion that we would now be allowed to watch over 200 channels filled us with both wonder and speechless anticipation. It was really beyond the power of my imagination to grasp. However, it wasn't long before I made a disheartening discovery about cable. No matter which program you were currently watching you always felt that you were missing something far more interesting on a different channel. And nine times out of ten, it wasn't true but the feeling was insidious nevertheless. And so began the age of channel zapping.
Similarly, upon my arrival here so many years ago, I was amazed and appalled by the regimentation of the average life in Turkey. It was an insult to my American sense of individualism, that one could pass through life without question, from school to career to marriage to parenthood.. without making any real decision on any of it. As I looked closer and silently compared both societies, I noted that for the most part, Turks seem fairly satisfied with their lack of options. Not all of them to be sure but the majority seemed content. I would smugly say to myself, "Of course, they are happy. They don't know what they are missing." But surely materialism- as tempting as it appears initially- isn't the key to happiness.
But don't misunderstand me. It is not one big la-la land where everybody dances around like Julie Andrews. There is frustration, of course, especially for women. Yet the kind of depression you commonly see in the US, in all of its forms, seems much harder to find. I find a stronger social network here; friendships that last a whole lifetime as opposed to a few years.
Life in affluent societies has become more and more like cable television, so many choices and so little enjoyment. That feeling we are missing something happening not so far away and so we skip from option to option, fearing that we will miss the best one, fearing that we are settling for less. Meanwhile life goes on and the fulfillment that comes from focusing on a single thing, one life goal no matter how small, slips through fingers.
Paradox of Choice