Freedom of Choice? In Favour of a Simpler Life
This week’s blog comes from Anthony Peacock, content creator and part of ULU Nation, our community here at ULU. Today, Anthony writes about the stress and anxiety that can come with having too much choice, and whether a simpler life might be more attractive in today’s often overwhelming society.
Freedom of Choice
I was asking a good friend only yesterday about what made him most stressed. And the reason I was asking was because he’s an individual who hardly ever seems stressed: even under the present circumstances (which aren’t ideal, as he’s contemplating a career change at possibly the worst possible moment, with the economy in freefall and a young family to support).
The problem is, he’s not entirely sure what he should change his career to yet, with a variety of options on the table. He just knows that he needs to jump out of his old job before he gets pushed. But even that’s not worrying him. No, he says that the problem is there’s simply too much choice.
He’d narrowed it down three possible options for his new career, which range from photography to selling classic cars. So in the end, there’s not that much choice: only three potential choices in fact. “But you said generally,” he pointed out. “The job thing doesn’t stress me out at all. What stresses me out is that there are too many choices in life generally. Do you remember when we got my new car?”
How could I forget. Like many people who are seriously into classic cars, my friend doesn’t know – or care – a lot about modern cars. He’s got his old MG convertible (great fun on summer days), 1972 Mini (great fun on any day) and until last year, a smelly Mazda that provided useful transport on most occasions but wasn’t going to trouble the classic collection at all.
And then their baby came, which meant that his girlfriend insisted on a small, cheap, and modern family car. The Mazda went, and after a bit of research, a new Ford Fiesta was selected as urban transport for the new baby and all its associated paraphernalia. I remember recommending this car from a position of supposed expertise and thinking it would be a straightforward process.
Judging by the proposed itinerary of visits to relatives, clinics, and even baby swimming classes, the chauffeuring requirements of this infant were clearly going to exceed those of the Chief Executive of Glaxo Smith Kline. So the proud parents were understandably keen to delve into Ford’s options list for any extra equipment available to help keep the baby safe (although living where they do in London, the only guarantee of this would be if Ford offered the Fiesta with the option of bonnet-mounted sidewinder missiles, armour plating and an ejector seat).
But they don’t. Instead you can have a perimeter alarm, soft feel gear knob, electronic automatic temperature control, parking sensors and capless refuelling system – among many other things – if you so choose.
That was before we even got onto the colour. Luckily they were quite clear about this: blue. But blue is a relative concept. There are in fact three options of blue available, only one of which contains the word ‘blue’.
Let’s be fair: I’m not singling out Ford for criticism here, just pointing out the sheer multiplicity of choice on an everyday basis. We should be grateful that they were not buying a Mini or a Fiat 500 – each of which, when all the possible options and engine sizes are taken into account, is available in more than 500,000 different configurations. In fact, Mini estimates that no two cars are entirely identical.
Choice, of course, is one of the things that define the civilised world – but maybe my friend has a point: does there really have to be so much of it? Go back 30 years, when the Fiesta was first introduced, and there was just a selection of three models: L, S and Ghia. The L was basic, the S had a few extra luxury items (such as headrests!) and the Ghia had everything – including some hideous fake wood and even a cigar lighter. And it’s not just in the world of cars where freedom of choice has skyrocketed.
Back in the days when such a thing was possible, I often used to wander into Starbucks. And I’d always ask for a coffee. Inevitably the answers would come back along the lines of: “Would that be a latte, cappuccino, skinny cappuccino, espresso, frappe, caffe misto, cafe au lait, decaf? Ready at the collection point! ”
And with that, a man approached a machine and conspicuously “made” the coffee by pushing various knobs and buttons for the best part of five minutes, before finally presenting the finished product on a cardboard plinth with the virtuoso air of someone who had just mastered Widor’s Toccata and Fugue on Westminster Cathedral organ.
He just wanted a car. I just wanted a coffee. But neither process is simple.
Looking back at it now of course, people have got far more pressing problems to deal with. Those inconveniences were in reality a luxury. But my friend still believes that too much choice is one of the biggest causes of stress of stress in his life. And while – like everything he says – that’s a bit of a joke, there’s still a serious point behind it (like there is behind most jokes).
Even in the current moment, society has never afforded us more options. That’s both a good and a bad thing. The simple life will always have its attractions. But you can’t get a shot of hazelnut syrup and reverse parking sensors with it.
If you’ve been following along with Anthony’s weekly blogs, you’ll know he’s been writing about all things coronavirus. So, For more of Anthony’s recent articles, why not read, “Adventure in the Time of Coronavirus: To Travel Hopefully…“ or “Coronavirus Week 7: “The New Normal?”