One important corollary of our society's perpetual frenzy is the continual urge to acquire. Those of us in
industrialized nations, of course, often make the mistake of equating freedom with the universal availability of endless
varieties of goods—of an infinite array of options for the things we might need to have or wish to own. In The
Paradox of Choice, Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz puts the lie to that misapprehension in a well-argued
polemic that, without ever mentioning yogic philosophy, provides a perfectly apt meditation on what
contentment—samtosha to yogis—might look like in today's world.
Citing what he calls the "overload of choice"—the shelves of his neighborhood supermarket, for example, contain 285
varieties of cookies, 95 snack options, 230 soup offerings, and 275 varieties of cereal—Schwartz examines the plethora
of decisions facing us as consumers every day. Our decision-making process seems hardwired to create dissatisfaction, he
says, because we are driven by both expectation and comparison: Advertising, personal testimonials, past experiences,
and our own fondest hopes drive us to seek a kind of perfect consumer experience that, alas, remains unattainable. We
would be far better off (that is, much happier), Schwartz argues, if "we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our
freedom of choice" as consumers, if we sought something that was "good enough" instead of "the best," if we lowered our
expectations about the results of our decisions, if "the decisions we made were nonreversible," and if "we paid less
attention to what others around us were doing." He further suggests that "when we are making decisions, we should think
about how each of the options will feel not just tomorrow, but months or even years later." I don't know about you, but
that sure looks like a high-octane contemplative practice to me.
Schwartz concludes with a helpful chapter, "What to Do About Choice," providing specific suggestions for ways to deal
with the misery-inducing "overload" and seek a simple but bountiful kind of happiness. The Paradox of Choice is a
thoughtful explication of a pervasive but underexamined affliction.