Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Happiness and Choice

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.
One of the first things I noted was the limited options in the supermarket. Vast aisles of products, that's true, but all the same brands. One kind of this and one kind of that, stretching halfway down the aisle. Later, European products were offered and this gave consumers a bit more variety but they tended to be the most expensive brands and all very upscale. And the Turkish market was, in fact, a difficult market to break into because the shoppers tended (back then) to be wary of any kind of new products. The attitude was: this is what we know, this is what we are used to and so why experiment?
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


  1. When I came to Turkey, it was so nice to find other people like me who were pleased to just sit and do nothing but shoot the breeze. This is hard to do with Americans because they're always off to th the next thing. What should we do next? What should we do next? The thing you're doing is never enough, especially when it's just shooting the breeze. I think I drove my mom insane when we were visiting a winery in the US, just by suggesting we sit and have a cup of coffee and root beer for LE instead of trying to rush and join a tour that started in 3 minutes. The idea of sitting around until the next tour was unthinkable. But that's as much a my mom issue as an American one.

    Novelty is an interesting issue here. People are, as you say, loathe to try new things. If you offer some foreign food for dinner, they'll say (pleasantly enough), "Çok değişik bişey!" which I suspect is actually a polite way of saying they're only eating it to be polite. Or, they'll try something new for a short time so that it becomes faddish, but it's generally short-lived and they go back to the old thing.

    Those foreign products in the market? In my neck of the woods, I often suspect my German friend and I are the only ones buying them. Say a new (to Turkey) foreign cheese comes out. Sylke and I inform each other, and get all excited and buy it. Then we buy it again. And again. But after a few weeks, it's clear that the supply is being depleted and not replaced, and the cheese is just getting old. Same for Starbucks. I would send my husband to pick up a bag of French roast beans for me. After a couple of months, he bought the last bag. The guy said, "You know, abi, you're the only one who buys that kind. Most people don't like such strong coffee." He then asked to try a little, and said, "Çok değişik!"

    It extends to larger things. There is a mall in my neighborhood that's always been here, the one with the MMMMMMMMM Migros. In the last 5 years or so, other malls have sprung up. One has a Carrefour Express and one has a Tansaş. They all had nice shops to begin with, and seemed promising, especially as new buildings were popping up everywhere and loads of people were moving out here. The Migros mall is almost too packed to walk on evenings and weekends. Yet, the 2 new malls are slowly going out of business. 2 of 3 floors have shut down in one, and the rest are clearly on their way out. The new malls are no worse than the Migros mall, but no one goes there because everyone goes to Migros and that's just the way it is.

    It's also true in Turkish art and music, I think. While there is some innovation in modern art (though not much of a market) They have a very Eastern sensibility, that it's better to do the traditional form as beautifully as possible rather than innovate on the form itself, or come up with a new form altogether. "My Name Is Red" was about this in part, and how it extends to larger things here. I loved the Master who cut out his own eyes rather than having to witness the forms of illumination changing.

  2. Absolutely, Stranger. I've learned the fine art of doing nothing (seemingly) in Turkey and I think I am hooked. It seems like it's a matter of quality of experience rather than hopping like a flea from thing to thing.

    I thought the lecture was particularly interesting from our (expat) perspective. After a certain point, having too much choice becomes self-defeating. Don't ask me where that point comes in, but...
    Have you ever seen that show on TV about people with hoarding problems? It is fascinating and repulsive at the same time. Pitiful and repugnant. Consumerism gone mad.

    I think the worst part, outside of the sheer waste of money, is how this kind of shopping mentality and materialism has warped our lives in more subtle ways. Like relationships.
    And about coffee..
    The other day, I went into a coffee shop. They sold ground coffee and I thought,"Hhmm this could be a great way of saving money." Instead of buying the more expensive Jacobs (Yacobs) brand, I could have the coffee beans ground myself. At about half the price.

    What on earth was I thinking!? I asked the sour faced man if he could ground the beans for use in a filter coffee maker. He looked at me and said, "Only Turkish coffee. We don't sell filter."
    And, I tried again and pointed at the red grinding machine. "But if you turn this little knob that way, it will.." By that time, he had stopped listening.
    A few minutes later, I was sitting in the barber's chair, telling Bald Mehmet about my experience and suddenly he darted across the street, scissors in hand, and came back with a small bag of finely ground Turkish coffee.
    For free.
    For me, it was one of those precious highly symbolic Turkish moments. The infuriating and the lovable.

  3. I don't think I can add anything more to this, you and Stranger have expressed exactly the way I feel about living here...the lack of choice most of the time. Having to make choices causes me stress...well it always did in the UK because there was too much of it.

    Now it's easy...particularly with shopping..just to get what you want..get out of the shop...and spend time doing something more enjoyable, like just sitting watching the world go by.

    I get caught up in the "too much choice" game every time I go to England. At first I'm like a kid in a sweet shop, but within a couple of days I hate it....and can't wait to get back to the predictability of shopping here.

    Nomad I love the story about the ground coffee...as you say a very symbolic Turkish moment.

  4. I had a similar experience with coffee, and the guy going, apologetically, "Just Turkish coffee." In his defense though, the grinder had a full tumbler of Turkish coffee beans on the top that I guess didn't come off easily, or so he claimed. So I just went to the nearest Arçelik shop and blew 50 lira on a small German-made grinder. That was like 6 years ago and I still have it.

    Then again, I take my coffee very seriously.

  5. Seriously, are the beans cooked differently? I wasn't aware of it. I just assume it was the amount - or rather the degree- of fineness of the grind that made the difference. I have made filter coffee with Turkish grind and it wasn't all that bad. For a temporary fix.(literally and figuratively).
    I am the same as you, Stranger. A good cup of java and my whole outlook on the world improves.

    The last time I was in the states, I would go to the mall and go nuts over the most ridiculous things. OH MY GOD!!! Mint chocolate kisses!! Or Irish Spring shower gel. Got back home and thought, did I lose my mind or something?

    Still, the quality of some items- like clothes and shoes did impress me. And food? I felt like I was exploding in slo-mo all the time I was there.

  6. Great story Mike. Read it to my wife and we actually had a nice discussion!


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