When I was growing up, my parents always made sure that I had a choice. Take it or leave it. Eat what was on my plate or go hungry. Drink what was in my glass or go thirsty. Wear what my mom bought at the store, or wear what she bought at the store. I wasn’t about to go to school without any clothes on. This is how I grew up, and so I am ill-prepared for the world in which we now live. Anymore we have way too many choices.
There are more than a thousand kinds of drinks you can get at Starbucks, which is amazing since they have nothing smaller than Tall. I understand that in the average supermarket there are 85 varieties of crackers, 285 kinds of cookies, 230 soups, 120 pasta sauces, 175 kinds of salad dressing, but only two people working the checkout stands. Still, supermarket choices pale compared to the number of TV channels, an estimated 15,000, and the number of cell phone plans, at least 14.5 jillion.
A few years ago there was a woman in an ad on TV. She said, “This morning I got up and went to put my English muffin in the toaster and there were nine settings! I can’t deal with that!” Nor can I. I feel about so many of the choices we have as does Jimmy Buffet in his song Fruitcakes. When I go to the movies I don’t want eight more ounces of watered-down Cherry Coke for an additional quarter. I don’t want a twelve-pound Nestle Crunch for $25. I don’t even want stadium seating.
There are different ways of going about making choices, but no matter what our style, beyond a certain point the more choices we are given, the unhappier we are. The more choices we ponder or the more time we invest in making a decision, the worse we feel. Why?
Several reasons. One is that we tend to feel more negative about what we don’t choose than positive about what we do. The knowledge that we miss out on what we don’t choose can rob us of satisfaction with what we did choose. Thoreau cautioned us about reading a book that if you read a certain book there’s another book you won’t read. Or, given how few of us read books nowadays, there are several programs on TV we’ll miss.
A second reason we feel badly about a choice is that we later realize we made a mistake. What were we thinking? We don’t want this one. It’s all wrong. And if we invested a lot of time and energy making this choice, we can feel even worse.
I once heard the late Pat Summitt, coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball team, speak. She had what she called the “24-hour Rule”. That is, you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some whatever you’re up to. So, if she won a game, she allowed herself no more than 24-hours to exult. Or if she lost a game, no more than 24-hours to mope. It was just a game, plus she had to prepare for the next one. Now, she admitted that if she lost in the Final Four, it sometimes took her 48-hours to get over it, but isn’t the “24-hour Rule” a good one to apply to choices? We have to make them. We’re going to make some good ones and some bad ones and some in-between ones. Whatever the outcome, get over it and move on.
A third reason why too many choices can make us feel bad is called hedonic adaptation. You know all about this strange term if you were ever a kid and got that one toy you had wanted for Christmas. Santa Claus brought you the greatest toy in the world, and so you started out Christmas morning playing with it. It was so much fun, but by Valentine’s where was it? In the back of your closet totally ignored. Hedonic adaptation means that when we find something that makes us happy, we eventually get used to it and it’s not that much fun anymore. So, why did we spend so much time and energy making a choice that hasn’t made us deliriously happy forevermore?
Another example of hedonic adaptation. I once saw an advertisement in magazines involving a grandmother getting a tattoo. There granny is in the tattoo parlor getting a tat on her left upper arm. And I apologize for not remembering what the product was. I just look at the pictures in advertisements unless it’s a new prescription drug. Then I crack up at the side effects. But I digress. What if granny doesn’t like her tattoo in a few months? Sometimes the choices we make in our 70s come back to haunt us in our 90s. So be careful out there. Carry on but don’t get carried away.
We all of us have to make choices. They’re as inevitable as taxes. So, ask yourself what choices are fun for you to make, or what choices are of vital interest to you and your family. These are the ones you need to consider carefully. But then ignore those choices about which you couldn’t care less were you not pressured into keeping up with the Joneses. Let these choices manage the Joneses’ life, not yours.
And then declare thanksgiving year around. Aaron Freedman says, “Gratitude ameliorates the worst aspect of American life, namely, that the consumer culture makes us constantly aware of what we have, and does so without counterbalancing rituals of gratitude for the mind-boggling bounty that we do have…As you are grateful, to that precise extent you are happy.