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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Too Many Choices
distributed 5/21/04, 9/4/09 & 10/2/15 - ©2015

Parents of small children know that it is important to limit choices. Asking a toddler, "what do you want for lunch?" will produce a temper tantrum (either from the kid or the parent). "Do you want cheese or peanut butter in your sandwich?" is more likely to get a quick and happy reply.

Some recent psychological research shows that similar dynamics are at play on a societal level. An article on The Tyranny of Choice (there is a blank first page in this PDF; scroll down!) documents that -- while some choice is psychologically beneficial -- too many choices lead to unhappiness. Professor Barry Schwartz writes, "a point is reached at which increased choice brings increased misery rather than increased opportunity. It appears that American society has long since passed that point."

Schwartz refers to other sociological studies which have shown that broad-based measures of personal happiness have been declining in the US since the 1970s, even as purely economic measures of prosperity rise. He says that the explosion of choice plays an important role in that decreased sense of well-being.

Our culture isn't living up to its promises. We're told that freedom and prosperity are the hallmarks of the good life, but we're not happy. The very things that are offered as sources of joy -- lots of options, and lots of stuff -- produce frustration and depression.

The article does an excellent job of describing how several interlocking factors lead to diminishing and negative returns as the number of choices increase. Increased costs in making decisions produce less benefits. More comparisons make us aware of the trade-off in all of our choices. Higher expectations set us up for failure.

  • Shoppers who confront a display of 30 jams or varieties of gourmet chocolate are less likely to purchase any than when they encounter a display of six.

  • Cable TV with hundreds of channels promises viewers that they will have splendid entertainment available at any time. But the usual result is constant channel-flipping because nothing really measures up to the hype. Four broadcast channels may be more satisfying, and provide more stable viewing.

  • A trip to the electronics store confronts the buyer with so many options, so many variations on a theme, that an informed choice becomes overwhelming. Which mix of features will serve you best?
The false religion of consumerism promises "salvation" in buying. It tells its followers that they can find real happiness in purchasing and owning stuff. That promise keeps being offered, even though it never delivers for the long term.

And, in our consumer society, when the dissatisfaction kicks in an hour, a week or a year after a purchase, the conditioned response is to think that buying something else will solve the problem. That cycle of shopping and consumption has disastrous effects on individuals, and on the planet. (It does, however, keep "the economy" humming right along!)

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I've often commented that people are unlikely to give up things that they value for the sake of some abstract good. They won't abandon personal comfort and convenience to achieve global environmental health. They won't willingly suffer privation to achieve sustainability.

As one commentator wrote, "Lasting change happens when people see for themselves that a different way of life is more fulfilling than their present one." The flip side is that lasting change will not happen if people think that their current way of life is more fulfilling than any of the options.

It is fairly easy to critique the consumer society for its environmental and social impacts. It is harder to show people that a less-consumptive way of life is more personally satisfying than what the popular culture offers.

One of the things that I find interesting about Schwartz's solid and sensible article is that it shows the real costs and problems in what has been presented as the best possible way to live. It explains why unending consumer choice gets in the way of real happiness and satisfaction.

We have long been able to point toward the advantages of "voluntary simplicity" -- more free time, greater community and deeper relationships, less financial stress. Schwartz helps us point out specific failures in the dominant culture. Now we can explain why placing ourselves in the presence of ceaseless advertising, limitless product choices, and multitudinous options for recreation takes a real toll on our collective psyche. We can reveal why subjecting ourselves to so much choice is not a satisfying way to live.

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Even in today's changing political, social and theological climate, many churches still are not dealing with environmental issues. Those issues are seen as irrelevant to ministry (!!), too rife with conflict, or too complex. Some congregations ignore all social issues and place their sole emphasis on pastoral and spiritual issues for the folk in the pew.

Rather than -- or in addition to -- pushing moral obligations about caring for all of God's creation, those of us who are committed to the Earth community can make effective use of research like Schwartz's. Addressing pastoral and psychological needs related to consumer stress will result in good things for the environment.

I thank God for these new insights and opportunities.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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