The Burden of Too Many Choices

My mother is having a milestone birthday this summer, for which she’s organized a weekend-long party at a resort out in the desert, and for which about 50 friends and family have RSVP’d so far. (It’s gonna be nuts.) I decided to take this as an excuse to buy myself a new swimsuit. If part of the zero waste ethos is to invest in good quality things that will last you a while instead of running out to constantly replace crappy things, then having my eyes set on a handmade bikini from a Canadian etsy seller would be ok, right? Instead of forking over for a new Target suit every other year, right?

I had my pieces picked out, and the colors, and everything, but then the unthinkable happened: the seller got swamped with orders and closed the shop until July. But the party was in June!

A sort of ugly panic welled up in me as I searched etsy for a similar style of store. When 2 hours of browsing resulted in nothing I would consider comparable in either style or quality, I headed to Amazon and threw away another 3 hours. And then to Overstock. And Zappos. I knew I’d hit a low point when I went looking on Modcloth and Everything But Water.

That right there? That is what I’m trying to beat by going ZW. That ravenous compulsion to acquire and possess, even if the situation isn’t dire. (I could technically reuse the bits of bikini I already have, even though yellow looks like death on me and my black ensemble is about 6 years old and falls down if I so much as stand up too fast.) But as I was doing this, spending entire evenings slumped down on the couch with my laptop and frantically clicking “next page” and “quick look” dozens of times, using up precious working memory as I tried to piece together tops and bottoms from different websites, I was sort in this dream state where I could see myself doing this, I could comment on it, but I couldn’t do anything about it until I ran out of energy.

A guy wrote a book about this sort of thing about 10 years ago, called The Paradox of Choicein which he asserts that people are happier when they have fewer things to choose from when making a decision, and that more choices make create anxiety and indecisiveness.

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.

—quoted from Ch.5, The Paradox of Choice, 2004

My bathing suit shopping frenzy is a perfect example of this. I had limited myself to a relatively limited set of styles and colors from a single store; I’d made my decision on what to buy pretty easily and had gotten on with my life as I waited for the right payday to make the purchase. But then that decision was no longer viable, throwing me out into a much, much wider world of swimsuits that I suddenly needed to browse. Instead of just a dozen, I was looking at hundreds. What if I made the wrong choice? What if there was something I liked more just on the next page? What if I could find this style for a better deal elsewhere? What if the two pieces I wound up buying didn’t match as much as I’d liked? What if what if what if??? In retrospect, it seems like a textbook case of analysis paralysis. No bueno.

In the end what I had to do was take a deep breath, step back, and remember it was all bullshit that didn’t actually matter. Deep down I know that I’d have just as good a time out there if I had to wear a burlap sack. (But what was that so hard to remember in the thick of things?) I made the decision to stick with one store; a different one than I originally set my sights on before the owner got swamped with orders. Don’t look anywhere else, and especially stop thinking about it until it was time for me to actually go in and make the purchase.

Putting limitations on myself has helped me in other parts of my life, I know now. I get more done creatively when I have a set project to work on. It’s easier to decide on what food to order at a restaurant if I strictly eat according to what my GERD allows or make meat off-limits. I’m much more discerning when I really try and avoid gratuitous packaging now, or products that aren’t made from recycled/recyclable or sustainable materials. Eliminating the endless personalized choices that consumer culture tells us we are entitled to, that it tells us will make us happy, I’ve found, actually for real makes me happier.

I don’t want that bikini shopping binge to happen again; it didn’t feel good at all. I want to kick that habit.

Maybe I’ll check out that book while I’m at it too…

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