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Text Reflection: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In 1890 William James gifted us with an equation from which to understand and predict our amount of self-esteem. For James, our evaluation ourselves boils down to an evaluation of personal success in light of pretensions. In short, what did we want and how much of it did we get? The equation works well to remind us that lower standards are easier to achieve and, if possible, a far happier life will blossom for individuals whose aspirations are more humble or at least easier to achieve. For the “pie in the sky” dreamers whose aspirations for greatness knowingly require constant dedication, luck and effort there exists the higher chance of low-self esteem and the daunting notion that failure is the highest possible outcome.

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz urges readers to keep a realistic perspective on personal aspirations. We are better served by a humble perspective towards life: avoid perfection, disregard regret, and recognize that our information obsessed society works against our need for control and focus. For Schwartz a world of endless choices and possibility is a nightmare, his text suggests that humans need their limitations and if placed into a world without boundaries, the majority of the population will wither in indecision. He cites a study by Richard Eckersley that connects increased rates of suicide with high rates of independence and personal choice. For Schwartz, our world of choice is literally driving some to mental illness and, in the worst cases, the act of suicide.

Choice can be a dangerous thing. If one is a perfectionist than no decision will bring happiness; because, after all, we may have bought an item that fulfills our every need and gives us pleasure, but are we sure it is the best? In the end the potential for something better will forever haunt the perfectionist even when such an item’s existence is unknown. Schwartz warns against this pattern of thinking, referring to those who engage in this behavior as “Maximizers” and showing that these individuals have more regret, are less happy and are even more prone to depression and suicide. Herein James’ theory applies: the Maximizer’s standards are too high.

The best attack plan towards life is to be realistic. Don’t aim too high and strive for balance. There’s a power in figures from our culture who urge us in this direction. As we leap further into a society where everything can be known at anytime and any place, we risk disconnecting ourselves from our community and sense of rational pace. Schwartz reminds us that the community is the most important thing in life, pointing to studies that reveal community membership to be the most likely indicator for happiness. We may have everything but if left all alone and unable to share the things we’ve learned, what is the point? In the end we’re better held in the company of friends and family with whom we can share the bounties of our world and revel in the power of our culture

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