Depressed by all the decisions, decisionsAfter wearing the same old jeans since the days when there was only really one kind, author and psychology professor Barry Schwartz finally went to a shop to get some new ones. There, he was met by a paralyzing list of choices: slim, easy or relaxed fit; button or zipper fly; stonewashed or acid washed; distressed, boot cut or tapered; and so on.
An hour later, Schwartz walked out with the best-fitting jeans he had ever worn.
The only problem? He was less satisfied with his new jeans than he had been with his previous pair. Schwartz felt that with so much choice, it was highly likely that he could have done better.
This experience led him to write the book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” which examines how the proliferation of options in the world has become a hindrance to happiness. We have so many potential avenues to take that finally picking one route leaves us with a bad taste in our collective mouth, because there’s always the chance we went the wrong way.
A person who has lived in different countries understands this concept, as every city has things that make it great and things that make it not so great. No city has everything. As such, the overly realistic expat always feels as if something is lacking from the place he or she is, no matter how wonderful the city or country may be.
Choice has certainly had a dramatic impact on Korea. In statistics recently released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it’s clear that Korea is facing a depression crisis. The suicide rate has risen dramatically since the late 1990s, to the point where there are now more suicides here than in any other OECD member state. An average of 22 people out of 100,000 take their own lives in Korea, compared to around 19 in Japan and nine in Germany.
It’s possible that this issue is related to the explosion of choice here. When the country was closed and a military dictatorship ruled the land - a time within the living memory of many older adults - consumer options were severely limited. But once the country started opening up and moving toward democracy, the possibilities began to grow exponentially, and not just for consumers. Life choices also expanded.
But the deep dissatisfaction and pressure that comes from constantly believing that one’s choices could have been better - whether in regards to clothes, cars apartments or jobs - is an unforeseen cost of the economic miracle that Korea has pulled off since the 1960s. Of course, it would be a gross oversimplification to say this is the only cause of the suicide problem. But the social pressure relating to personal choices is certainly a major issue.
In a talk he gave at a 2006 conference, Schwartz said, “Nowadays, the world we live in, we affluent industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation, the best you can hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. ...The secret to happiness ... is low expectations.”
So can someone who’s been shown all the possibilities available in the world ever be truly happy with what they have? It seems to take a level of focus that most of us average earthlings lack. But if we can somehow learn to appreciate the positive aspects of our lives while they last, we’ll be off to a good start.
By Richard Scott-Ashe [firstname.lastname@example.org]