I was in my neighborhood CVS the other night, and I was surprised to find that it had recently been remodeled. They had expanded the grocery section and added in some of those self-checkout stations that they’re always trying to get you to use. I poked my head around the corner into the grocery section, and there were four different varieties of mayonnaise for sale.
Does all this choice make our lives better?
Four different mayos. At a convenience store. I don’t really use mayonnaise for anything, so I can only imagine the options available at an actual grocery store. Are there 8, 10 different brands of mayonnaise to choose from? Can you imagine being in a hurry and then being stopped in your tracks because now you have to choose from a thousand different varieties of the same product?
It happens all the time, every day, and not just with mayonnaise. In every facet of our lives, we’re confronted with an ever-increasing freedom of choice, and it’s making us miserable.
For once, I’m not just making this up to have a topic to write on. There’s a ton of research available out there, most notably The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. Basically, the idea is that having more choices in life actually makes us less happy (something called “choice anxiety”) because we’re never sure if we’re choosing the right product, service, career path, etc. Take a moment to think of the implications this has.
Everything you do from the time you reach adolescence is confounded by the prospects of what might have been. What if I had played soccer instead of football? Would I have gotten into a better college? What about the college I chose -- was it the right one? What about this major -- will it help me get the job I want? Am I so sure the career path I think I want is the right one? What about my girlfriend? There are other girls out there, so would I be happier with someone else? What kind of mayonnaise should I put on my sandwich? It’s maddening.
I think it’s important to point out that this choice anxiety is not exclusive to the upper crust, not only a so-called “first-world problem.” As nice as I’m sure a bespoke suit is, the fact is that 90 percent of this site’s readers cannot and will not have anxiety over choosing a tailor to commission. It’s simpler and more damning than that. You might argue that the solution is to abstain, to not choose at all, and to a point, you would be correct. “I don’t need any of that superfluous stuff” is a great mantra and principle, but it’s not that easy.
More From AskMen:
Mate Selection (Do Men Really Settle For Less When It Comes To Women?)
Man-Children (Decline Of Men: Are We Turning Into Babies?)
Adulthood (Why We Need To Grow Up Now)
Life Choices That Matter
How Do You Know What To Do With Your Life?
Choosing How to Get By
For a family or individual subsisting on a meager income, the everyday things we take for granted can create choice anxiety. Did you find the cheapest gas in the area? You can only afford to fill up once per paycheck, after all. The store’s out of the off-brand toilet paper. Is it worth the gas to see if the one across town has it? The bills add up to more than I’ve made this month. Which one will let me float a month while I pay the other ones? Which utility can I afford to have shut off if need be?
This wasn’t always the problem it is today, or not on the same scale, at least. In years past, either a lack of income or outright lack of options made things a lot simpler than they are now. Maybe when you went to the grocery store you only had mayonnaise or Miracle Whip, and you knew exactly what camp you were in. The change happened rapidly, and I think it has a lot to do with the so-called “generational war” (I don't know if anyone else is calling it that, but I am) going on right now between the millennials and the baby boomers who produced them. The boomers had to claw their way up the societal ladder, and so to them, the young adults of my generation (particularly those in the Occupy Movement) come across as entitled, idealistic and unwilling to roll up their sleeves and get to work. To an extent, they’re exactly right.
Quit Whining, They Say
On the other hand, some commentators have pointed out that the boomers need to tone it down a notch, because, after all, they created us. They raised us to believe that we’re all unique and we can be anything we want to be, and they shouldn’t complain so much because we’re really only demanding what we were told we were entitled to in the first place. I’m kind of inclined to agree on that front, too, but I think it goes deeper than that. Ignoring how we were brought up, think of the world the boomers built for my generation. They built media empires that bombard us with information. They formed food conglomerates that produce 19 different types of mayonnaise. My generation is the first to come of age in the era of “hyper-choice,” and if we’re not handling it all that well, it’s probably because this amount of choice is unprecedented in the history of humanity.
There’s no escaping it, and for once this isn’t one of those columns where I pontificate on something and then offer a brilliantly worded, snarky solution. There isn’t a solution, because this is progress. To suddenly find ourselves burdened with fewer choices would mean something catastrophic had to have happened.
The only real “advice” I can offer is to pick your battles.
It may be worth sweating over what colleges to apply to, but once you’re there, you’ll find that your major doesn’t matter much. Similarly, it’s wise to spend some time thinking about what you want to do for a living, as you’ll find that it’s a lot easier to switch companies within a field than it is to switch fields altogether. For smaller things, change your mind-set. Don’t think to yourself, “Which one of these is best?” That’s the kind of entitled thinking that opponents of the Occupy Movement are so quick to point out.
Instead, think, “Which of these varieties won’t meet my needs?” and then go from there. It’s subtle, but I think it’s important.
Whatever you do, don’t sweat the mayonnaise.
"It's A Man's World" is a column on anything and everything related to the modern man, by Ian Lang. If there are any topics you'd like to see addressed here, send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or let us know what you think in the comments section.