A friend of mine who suffered greatly caring for her ailing parents found herself an orphan in her 20s. She was left with such an inheritance that she could – by her own admission – stay in her room and live on take-out the rest of her life. Meaning, she was set. My friend was free to live not to work and to work not to live. As the obligation of employment did not weigh on her life, she was free to dream whatever she dared with the means to transform it to reality.
She lives with the guilt to this day.
Because, she says, it is her parents’ money she is sitting on, not something she herself had earned. No matter that she worked hard all her life in school, that she made it in the world of finance as an Ivy league graduate. When life served her comfort on a silver platter and swept clear her runway, she sank into depression.
Her response back then intrigued me as I looked on while flailing for a financial foothold, after I had managed to study and make it into the world of designer clothes and country club dining, my life before and after this season a hazardous patch of thin ice. I grew up watching my parents scrounge and sweat, life without money struggles a most curious fantasy. It happened to some but surely would pass me over. But the bitterness of the little girl became gratitude; in my newfound Christian faith, I realized that with so little I had nothing to lose. And provisions would come my way in the most timely moments. I was about to shop for wardrobe to interview for head of the Gifted and Talented Program when my mother fell ill. I rushed back home to New York three hours away from Pennsylvania to end up tied to her in the hospital until the eve of the big day. I was going to set out for the interview as unprepared as I could be when Mom sheepishly told me about the suit she couldn’t resist picking up outside a ritzy building on Lexington Avenue before I rushed over to her. She had spotted it in an expensive trash pile after a long day of babysitting. Fit me perfectly and though I walked into my important meeting late, having gotten lost in the rain, I got the job over the women who looked the part of the upper-middle class echelon. I felt like Cinderella, though I’m not sure she was a bookworm. The assistant superintendent of the district put to me a grammar question the Caucasian candidates couldn’t answer. I know. Some of you are smiling. See? Learn your grammar. When later that year I told my principal the tale of the castaway suit, she remembered the way I’d walked in that day, said I looked sharp, she never would’ve known. But Cinderella did have to leave the ball.
When I left the district, there I was again – savings now depleted and too sick to work on my 30th birthday. Money can’t buy happiness but it sure pays the bills and puts food in your mouth. I know what it is to teeter on a tightrope without a net. One semester in college I sold my guitar so I could eat. The black hand of powerlessness slips a mask over your head and breathing becomes difficult. Now, you’d think it’s freedom on the other side of poverty, on the wide green grass of options. But even there you can become strapped, or paralyzed. And instead of joy, you might find despair.
In his book and TED Talk, Barry Schwartz sheds light on what he calls the paradox of choice.
With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I’ll give you one very dramatic example. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds and 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow. So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. That’s one effect [of the power of choice].
Another is the escalation of expectations. This hit me when I went to replace my jeans. The shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah …” My jaw dropped, and after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store — truth! — with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors, damn it, one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results.
The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in – we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation – the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness is low expectations.
Finally, one consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied and you ask why, who’s responsible, the answer is clear: the world is responsible. What could you do? When there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why, who’s responsible? It is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better. With a hundred different kinds of jeans on display, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, even though the results are good, they feel disappointed about them; they blame themselves.
Clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation. I believe a significant contributor is that people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high, and then when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault. And so we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse. There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is. I’m pretty confident that we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare.
He knows me. I hate Walmart. I don’t care about the prices. Store’s just too big and I lose precious time searching for what I want. There are few things I loathe more than shopping for jeans, which is why I’ve stuck with two pairs the last ten years. This is what likely happened to my orphan friend: she became overwhelmed at the gala of work and life options that had opened for her. We pine and claim we could’ve done better if we’d been dealt a kinder hand. Loaded with all the resources anyone could hope for; money, time, smarts, education, she stared into the dark mirror. How could she best use her talents, make an impact, do justice to her parents’ gift of sacrifice? She was naked, stripped of excuses. What if her choice wasn’t good enough? Oh, the burden of getting it right.