‘Tis the season to be thinking about thankfulness. I have been, along with a few other things that might not seem immediately related.
Leading into the Thanksgiving week I started reading The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less by Barry Schwartz, a slightly academic romp into why more options make us less satisfied. He goes into the psychology of making decisions, and what happens when we are presented with more options. Some of the ways that he gives to alleviate the stress of too many options are interesting in the context of our “give me options” culture: practice gratefulness, be content with “good enough”, embrace constraints on choice (more on that in a minute), make decisions permanent, and choose when to choose.
Those can be boiled down to this: gratitude, contentment, relationship, decisiveness, discernment, but I suppose the terms used above might be easier understood. These are all attributes of character. The most interesting of these is the “embrace constraints on choice” item. He elaborates on this, indicating that our pursuit of individual autonomy increases our options, whereas our acceptance of the constrains that relationship and community put on us reduces our options. Examples of this would be both marriage and church. When we accept marriage for what it is, we reduce our options for mates, housing, habits, food, sex, and sometimes clothing and style. The same is true of Church. The key word here is acceptance. If you don’t accept the terms of the marital contract, yet take the vows, you might not be very satisfied with the imposed reduction in options. The end result is that those who have accepted these relational and community constraints on choice are happier. The same with the list of character attributes listed above. The more grateful, content, relational, decisive, and discerning you are, the happier you are as well. I would add that happiness is not really the goal, but character is, and a stronger character leads to a better outlook on life.
Also in the book is a section about gratefulness, both positive and negative. Positive gratefulness would be thankfulness for what you do have: shelter, food, clothing, loving family. Negative gratefulness would be thankfulness for what you do not have: HIV, missing limbs, debt, the draft, a contentious wife. The positive is easy, but we still do not do it very often. The negative is not much more difficult, but in the end leads to a multitude of items on our positive list (relatively good health, the limbs I was born with, accounts in the black, the choice for peace, and a loving, industrious, beautiful wife).
Some of these ideas reassure me that we are heading in the right direction. We have constrained our options willingly, decided to be content with what God has provided, chosen to make commitments permanent, and realized that sometimes we can choose not to choose. As I think about what we are thankful for, I also started to realize that there are many things that I could complain about, but feel none of the anxiety that leads that direction. I am content. Not just with what we have, but also with the state in which we have it, used, patched, rough, ugly, lame, worn, old, second-hand, and unfinished. Part of my thankfulness is for things that do not demand status or prestige.
While I have mentioned a few aspects of the book, it goes into other aspects of the problem of increased options. I would recommend it, despite it’s academic nature.
TED video where Barry Schwartz talks about the paradox of choice
Google Books info on Paradox of Choice