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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2004 / 15 Teves, 5764

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

Decisions, decisions | The article in Parade Magazine hit me like a ton of bricks.

Author and Social Scientist Barry Schwartz says Americans are becoming less happy because we're allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by way too many choices. He sets out his case in a new book, "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less."

According to Schwartz, Americans live in a time of prosperity and abundance that is beyond anyone's wildest dreams. But along with our prosperity comes lots and lots of choices.

No sooner do we wake in the morning than we have to choose among hundreds of breakfast cereals, drinks and coffees. There are more than 40 kinds of toothpaste to choose from, hundreds of shampoos and, for metrosexual males, hundreds of other ointments, salves and moisturizers.

Throughout the day, we're pestered by telemarketers, pop-up ads and television and radio spots that promise us we'll be fit, smart and stylish if we use their products and fat, dumb and dorky if we don't.

Schwartz gives an example of a visit to a Gap clothing store to buy a pair of jeans. In the old days the average fellow had only to choose between Wrangler or Levis, but not any more. The Gap offers slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, stonewashed, acid-washed, distressed, button fly, zipper fly, faded or regular. Where does a fellow start?

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But decisions over material things are just the beginning of our confusion. We've allowed ourselves to become as equally overwhelmed by the careers we choose, our jobs, our spouses… or even if we should marry at all.

I got to tell you that that last one resonates with me. I was raised with the simple Catholic values of 1960's Pittsburgh. When I was younger, I always assumed I'd find a lovely girl, marry and have a big family. And yet here I am, still single at 41.

And the interesting part to me is the longer I go, the harder it is to focus. In Washington, D.C. 46% of the population is single, which means there are millions of attractive available women here. How could I ever pin myself down with one when there are so many others I've not yet met - when the perfect girl is still out there somewhere?

That's if I was able to select a woman willing to select me back.

Surveys of single people here show that most everyone is looking not just for a spouse or a companion these days, but a soul mate - that perfect person who is going to fill their hearts with joy every moment of every day. Most mortals cannot fulfill such high expectations and demands, which is why 46% of Washingtonians are still single.

The peculiar thing about the American mind - and I know I'm guilty as anyone - is that we equate freedom with unlimited choice, when it is opposite that is actually true. It is in limiting our choices that we are set free.

G.K. Chesterton said that marriage brings a man happiness because it gives him clarity and focus. By focusing his energies and affections on one woman, he is able to know the sweetness of a closeness with one woman.

Could you imagine being an artist, he said, who was trying to paint a canvas that was as large as the moon? Where do you start painting? No, it is the frame that liberates the artist. By being boxed into a small rectangular area, he is given a point of reference and perspective. It is the frame that sets the artist free.

Schwartz says the great irony of our times is that the people who don't have limitless choices - people who are married, who are close to their families and friends - who are happier. They are unable to jump jobs, change girlfriends or blow their money on nice shiny things because they are bound to other people.

I know in my bones this is true, but goodness there are lots of pretty women in this town. I better keep searching for a while.

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12/27/03: Holiday Pork
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11/21/03: Thanksgiving, updated for our times
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11/07/03: Morale at Veterans' Day
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06/07/02: Legal rights for animals?
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05/03/02: Letter to the parents of a tubby teen
04/26/02: Zacarias Moussaoui gets expert legal advice

© 2003, Tom Purcell