It happened when I was queuing at a coffee shop, waiting to make my order. Everything seemed normal and I had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary, until the elderly lady in front had a near-breakdown after what was presumably her first ever encounter with modern society and its mind-boggling barrage of choice.
She had asked for a simple coffee, no frills attached (not her exact words). But simple just doesn’t cut it anymore, and instead, she was bombarded with a swarm of possibilities that literally rendered her speechless. My heart went out to her, because if you think about it, the fact that we’re surrounded by so many thousands of options for any one decision really does border on lunacy.
I think the problem is that we live in a world where choice is equated with happiness; where the act of making a decision is supposed to instil in us a sense of control. But this is an illusion, and the plethora of options we have these days is reaching epic proportions. If you go to a Starbucks (just one of the countless cafes around these days), you will have a whopping 87,000 drink combinations from which to choose. Supermarkets even have whole aisles dedicated to particular product types.
This proliferation was initially meant to increase customer satisfaction; the burgeoning bounty of loaves and lattes was fashioned so that no customer had needs (or rather, wants) unmet. But do not be fooled: it is a weapon of mass consumerism. This illusion of fulfilment driven by the ability to choose is merely a hook on which a capitalist society can exploit our innate, immeasurable and (more importantly) insatiable pursuit of happiness.
If you’re anything like me, excessive choice just means being relentlessly haunted by the options and opportunities you turned down. We are brainwashed into thinking that only one of these options is the ‘right’ one, and as such, all the others (whether it’s 1 or 1,000) are ‘wrong’. And good god, the fear of making the wrong decision! Especially in today’s world of myriad varieties where there are, by extension, myriad ways of going wrong – whatever we eventually decide is thus inevitably and irrevocably ruined by the underlying anxiety that we have denied ourselves so much, regardless of what we have actually allowed ourselves to have.
And so, the insidious complexity of choice in modern society strips us of any real gratification. When we choose a drink, a movie, a book to read or a meal to cook, we are unknowingly engaging in a painful process of rejection and denial. As I stood behind the old lady who was helplessly trying to decide what to order, I couldn’t help but feel that although choice is supposed to liberate us, we are only becoming more anxious, and in a way, less free.
Written by Juliet Conway
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