by Sanjuna Halder
I very fondly remember my grandma telling me the story of a fox and a cat, where the fox boasts of “hundreds of ways of escaping” while the cat has “only one”. When they hear the hounds approaching, the cat scampers up a tree while “the fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds”. The fable ends with the moral, “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon”.
It is a common scenario at an ice-cream parlour where I am surprised by the choices that they have to offer me ranging from choco-butterscotch mix to coconut-orange. I would actually have been happy with my simple chocolate or vanilla cone but with so many choices I am befuddled.
A student, even after scoring 98% in his board exams is full of anxiety about which college to choose.
This is the ‘problem of plenty’. Too many choices sometimes leave us confused.
Apparently, the concept of choice is very interesting. A more important question would be: are we happier if we have a wide variety of choices? What is the entire thought process about making a choice? Can we associate ‘freedom’ with choice?
Sheena Iyengar who published a book titled The Art of Choosing says “happiness doesn’t come from getting what you want, but wanting what you got. In spite of the fact that we don’t always know what will make us happy when we make a choice, we feel more and more pressured today to make choices that are in line with our preferences, and to know our preferences, and to make choices in accordance with that”.
There is a concept called Buridian’s Ass which refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other. It is true that when people don’t have a lot of choices, life gets difficult but when we do, the negative aspect of multitude of options begin to appear.
Barry Schwartz in his book titled Paradox of Choice argues “Infinite choice is paralyzing and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves”.
Economist and philosopher Amartya Sen in his book Development as Freedom distinguishes the importance of choice. He suggests instead of being fetishistic about freedom of choice, we should ask ourselves whether it nourishes us or deprives us. Also, sometimes increased choice may contribute little or nothing to the kind of freedom that counts.
Simple moments of joy have been lost in looking for a universe full of multiple choices. We don’t find happiness in the simple things of life like watching rain drops dancing on the window sill, the first mango of the season, receiving a letter from a long lost friend, hearing a smile in someone’s voice or the first sip of beverage when you are thirsty.
Even for Baskin Robbins, 50% of their sales are accounted for by plain vanilla and chocolate. Still most of us wouldn’t walk into an ice cream parlour that only offered us vanilla and chocolate. We would want 40 other varieties. So what is your flavour of happiness? 40 varieties or plain vanilla and chocolate.
sheenaiyengar.com/the-art-of-choosing/ (Iyengar, The art of choosing n.d.)
http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bschwar1/Sci.Amer.pdf (Schwartz n.d.)
ocean.otr.usm.edu/…/Sen_1999_DevelopmentAsFreedomIntro+ch1.pdf (Sen n.d.)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buridan’s_ass (Buridian n.d.)