If I happen to decide to buy a candle today, I have the option of going to perhaps nine home decorating stores within driving distance of my home. Once I choose a store, I will encounter five brands. Let’s say I choose the Yankee Candle Company. They offer eighteen different scents this season, paired with eighteen different colors, which come in a choice of five different sizes, labeled 100 hour, 50 hour, 20 hour, 10 hour, and mini. I do a little bit of math before I leave my home, and I realize that I could purchase 4,050 different candles today. Wahooo! Pepper for the win! Out of 4,050 candles, there has got to be one that’s just perfect for me.
Yikes. As countless magazines and self-help books have begun taking serious note of, American society is today faced with more choices than ever before. We have TV channels and books and blogs and foods and shampoos and just about everything else, not to mention jobs and hobbies and exponentially multiplying college majors. This is not just a trend from which we can be saved, moreover, but is in fact a scientifically mandated phenomenon. The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe moves towards an increasingly disordered state. Today’s vastly diverse choices are a part of that process. Entropy wins, and there are absolutely no ifs ands or buts about it.
Choice is a good thing, and I’d be the first one to line up behind the “having choices” ticket counter. But psychologists can tell you pretty definitively that this will make me one of the less happy campers. Choice stresses us out. It puts pressure on us to make the right decisions. Sometimes, this means that we end up avoiding making decisions at all. Other times, it means that we make choices but then live in constant ambivalence, wondering if we made the right choice or not. Sometimes we are deliriously happy with our choices. But I do not kid myself into thinking this is always the case.
One realm that this plays out in a super interesting way is marriage. Comparative psychologists have begun to explore that fact that not only do arranged marriages have better divorce statistics, but they also have more happily married husbands and wives. A study in Jaipur, India a few decades ago found that people in love marriages were more in love for the first five years, while those in arranged marriages were more in love for the next 30 years. Some have chalked this up to our inability to make good decisions ourselves. The theory is that when friends who love and understand us choose a mate for us, they are making a better decision than we might make for ourselves. I get this line of reasoning, and I don’t think we should dismiss it.
However, I often wonder if part of the reason Americans have such a high divorce rate is because we live in a paradigm in which we can always seek greater happiness. In an arranged marriage, a wife often enters into it knowing that it is going to be her life until she dies, so she commits to making the absolute best of it as she can. Without questions and without doubts, contentedness can settle in. This is not the case in American society. Choices and temptations and new lifestyles abound, and we live sometimes, I think, in a bit of a jittery, unsettled, and perpetually unfulfilled mess.
More than anything else, I think about this phenomenon in my own life. I loved my high school sweetheart very, very much. And I know with absolute certainty that if I never left Detroit, I never would have found new cultures and people that fit me better. I would have been astronomically happy building a life with him. But the potential for greener pastures beckoned, and I hopped on a plane faster than Justin Bieber reaches for second base. Choice is a very powerful and awesome God, and I would not go so far as to say it’s ruined my ability to love–I’d say the opposite, in fact–but it has without question made it more difficult for me to be content.
So if I lived in a tribe, I probably wouldn’t have these problems. I wouldn’t be stressed out by a fucking candle, and I would certainly be content with the friends, lovers, and family members I had. If cavemen had anything right, this was it. We’ve got to emulate it. Simplify. Relax. Accept things as they are. Certainly I’m not giving up my things or my freedom any time soon, but I have vowed to never buy a candle ever again.Tweet