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Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Human Packrat

In the good, or perhaps bad old days, mankind had very little to choose from, and that was an unfortunate thing. For Americans in the 1950's, these were lean times. Families had a home with four rooms, a library with ten books, three television channels, six sets of clothes, and a photo album with at most one hundred pictures. Nowadays, we have homes with ten rooms (of which we use four), a library with hundreds of books (of which we read ten), a hundred sets of clothes (of which we wear six), and a digital photo album with thousands of pictures (of which we see a hundred.) The modern world has allowed us to accumulated tons of ‘stuff’, but the moments we have to enjoy that stuff is just as limited, and limiting, as 1955. Oddly, we are today even more manic about collecting stuff, and thus multiplying choice, and anticipate an eternal growth in wealth, or GDP, to help husband our progress to a world of infinite alternatives, infinite possessions, and infinite happiness. We have become in other words, a race of human pack rats. The problem is, a growth in choice and the possessions choice entails has paralleled a decrease in human happiness and an increase in frustration, depression, and stress. That a world of abundance correlates and perhaps causes misery is an argument that seems to have no logic, yet a strong argument may be made that beyond global warming, terrorism, or inflation, it is choice itself that is the prime instigator in our dissatisfactions.

This argument was made by the psychologist Barry Schwartz in his recent book ‘ The Tyranny of Choice’. Citing a host of studies from the literature of social psychology, Schwartz noted that when confronted with too many choices, each alternative cannot be fully appraised, and it is more likely that an opportunity loss is realized in hindsight as we appraise alternatives foregone. Moreover, a choice made may fade in importance as we become acquainted or ‘habituated’ to it, as we may regret a marital affair, eating a fatty food, passing time playing a video game, etc., thus reflecting how the emotional or ‘affective’ reasons can be forgotten or dismissed when we appraise the value of our day’s choices.

So what’s the solution? Well, it helps a bit to first to observe that choice can be different things. When we choose something, we can model or anticipate that choice in our minds as well as the positive yet uncertain benefits that may accrue to that virtual choice, or we can make a real choice and be stuck with consequences that are real and not imagined. For example, perusing a wine list permits us to model the separate pleasures of each vintage, choosing a wine enables us to actually sample the wine, but also comes with the cognitive baggage of lost opportunities.

Virtual choice entails no opportunity loss, and looking forward to infinite opportunities has no emotional cost, but is pleasurable and arousing in itself. We can afford to arrange unlimited opportunities or an infinite catalog, as long as we don’t have to really choose. Think of looking forward to Christmas or to a summer vacation for example. When we apprehend choice, we are never conflicted, never have remorse, and never recognize loss because the slate of possibilities can at any moment be wiped clean. Like being granted 3 wishes that are never used, just imagining the possibilities is all that one should really wish for, and that wish is free! So apprehending choice is a source of never ending joy, but making a choice is an invitation to eventual sorrow.

So given this little fact, what’s a surefire recipe for happiness, at least of hedonistic kind? Simple, just make choices that serve apprehension, and avoid choices that serve regret. This strategy of course is informed by folk wisdom or common sense, and is employed when we commonly postpone decision and savor choice. So we end up in pleasurable apprehension of piles of clothes, trophies, books, videos, cash, and houses in the country, transfiguring materialism into the idealism of prospective desire.

So there we have it, our bountiful world is just set for our everlasting happiness. But as with all good things, there’s a catch. The modern prospect of infinite choices comes in tandem with the infinite availability of choice, as we can do anything at anytime. We can make phone calls, receive mail, watch TV, and in general partake of any pleasure, at any time. But the problem becomes not what to decide, but when to decide. The world is in other words full of distractions, and we don’t know when it is wise to consume, and when it is wise to merely looking forward to consume. So indecision rules, anxiety rises, and like the ass in Aesop’s fable, we starve to death while choosing between two equal bales of hay. Thus ironically, anxiety becomes prevalent in a world of plenty.

So what’s the solution? Well, just ask Ward Cleaver. As the paterfamilias of the Cleaver clan in the 1950's TV show ‘Leave it to Beaver’, Ward just counciled his kids to wait out all pleasures until they finished the chores, did their homework, and washed their faces. And for Beaver and Wally, it was an easy thing to do, because they couldn’t enjoy their pleasures anyway until the evening. For the modern dilemmas of our times, Ward’s advice is just as wise. Thus, put off all unnecessary decisions until an evening hour (and that means no TV, email, phone calls, internet, etc.), and life suddenly becomes less distracting, less conflicting, and much more relaxing. In the meantime, we can look to the future, as we always have hope.

2 comments:

blogger1272 said...
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musica said...
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