The Prison of Cereal Boxes
The 2008 war film Hurt Locker features a powerful scene that stuck with me: Jeremy Renner’s character returns home from the Iraq war, and his wife sends him to the store to buy cereal. He stands motionless before the breakfast aisle, temporarily paralyzed by the hundreds of cereal boxes.
In the face of war, this would seem to be a form of culture shock. However, according to psychologist Barry Schwartz, “Paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices.” In this way, we are being paralyzed all the time—whether grocery shopping, choosing relationships, or browsing the internet. Perhaps we are so used to being paralyzed that it would take returning home from a war zone to notice the fullness of it.
But wait. Isn’t having plenty of choices a good thing?
Not necessarily. In a TED talk, Schwartz attacks the popular Western dogma—”The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice”—and argues that having too many choices can leave us feeling dissatisfied, having unrealistic expectations, and imagining something better.
In essence, we’re not satisfied because maybe, just maybe, the grass is greener somewhere else. Even if it isn’t. I think about how much time I’ve wasted trying to make choices that don’t really matter in the long run. Should I buy toothpaste with or without fluoride? Would this film look better on Blu-Ray?
It’s Saturday night: should I go to The Pond? The Blue Moon? The Purple Parrot? Rigby’s? Or Diego’s Hideaway? Or should I just stay home and watch Netflix? Or should I watch Hulu? Or Amazon Prime?
Even worse, the problem of choice has spilled into the world of dating and relationships, thanks to mobile dating apps like Bumble, HER, Grindr, and Tinder, to name a few. Because these apps offer so many options when it comes to finding a date, it’s easy to look past even the best date and imagine someone better (Mr. or Ms. Right).
As Schwartz mentions, “Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have.” High expectations = constant disappointment = unhappiness. So how do we find any peace in this sea of endless choices?
The answer: learning to be happy with what we have, where we are, who we are with. Also: simplicity.
For a while, when I lived in Lewes, I shopped at the quaint Lloyd’s Market. I must admit they were the happiest grocery shopping days I ever spent. Why? Not too many choices, and I was completely satisfied with every choice I made. Life was simple.
Now that I’ve moved to a different neighborhood and shop at a major grocery store, my days of shopping bliss are over: I spent more than an entire minute this evening choosing among five brands of corn flakes.
Perhaps by choosing smaller, locally-owned stores and with shopping lists in-hand before even setting foot in these stores, we can spend less time making unimportant decisions. By being present, accepting each moment as it is, and being satisfied with the choices we make, we can slowly begin to break free from the prison of cereal boxes.▼
James Adams Smith works as an English tutor at Delaware Technical & Community College and is studying to become an occupational therapist.