What have you done today to lower your impact?

We are washing away the foundations of our existence on every front. It is high time we move from crashing about on the planet like a bull in china shop and find a way to go forward with intent. We must find systems of living based on sustainability. The systems and tools exist, it is up to each of us to adopt them.

Blog Archive

Friday, 29 February 2008

The Epiphany of Enough by Dave

The populations of the developed world generally and the United States particularly are choosing more and enjoying it less. That's the basic premise of a book entitled, "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz. This book is a great resource for reinforcing our commitment to living a balanced, sustainable life.
Schwartz examines the apparently contrary fact that, although people today have a veritable cornucopia of options to choose from...an array that has increased exponentially since the 60's, we also see a corresponding decrease in well being. Since 1960 in the U.S., the divorce rate has doubled,the teen suicide rate has tripled,the recorded violent crime rate has quadrupled,the prison population has quintupled, and the percentage of babies born to unwed parents has sextupled. Also, and perhaps the most telling of all, the rate of serious clinical depression has more than tripled over the last two generations, and increased by a factor of 10 from 1900 to 2000. Why all this in a culture that assures us that being in control of your needs and wants...the freedom of choosing...is the key to a happy, fulfilled life?
The author's conclusions lend new resonance to Orwell's anti-mantra, "Freedom is Slavery". This freedom we celebrate as a birthright comes with a curse: what economist Fred Hirsch called "the tyranny of small decisions". The many field studies Schwartz cites show that choice, in the modern age, has become burdensome, not liberating. A study in a hospital asked patients if they would prefer to choose their own mode of treatment should they contract cancer...65% said yes. However, when patients who actually got the cancer were asked, 88% said they would prefer that the professionals made that choice.
Other data presented showed that accumulations of wealth (i.e. more choices) did not always translate into increased happiness. People in wealthy nations are generally happier than people in poor nations,yes...money matters. But, once subsistence needs are met, surveys show that further increases in wealth don't seem to matter much.
Another interesting element is the discovery that the things that seem to make people the most happy, are the things that limit choices . Marriage for instance, and closer, more committed ties to family and religious institutions.....the kind of things that can't be easily opted out of. That part reminded me of a discovery I made when working in the theatre, building scenery. When I built sets on a tight budget, I had to get more creative about problem-solving, and the rewards for success were richer than later in my career when I could just throw money at the problem. The limitations became the reward.
So the dynamics of choice are seen to vary from a sense of helplessness at the extreme where a person has no choice at all, to a sense of empty ennui and depression at the other end.
Choosing when to choose is one corrective. Some control over choice is certainly rewarding.We don't want to give up on choosing altogether, like the somnambulent Eloi in H.G. Wells' "Time Machine", just waiting around listlessly to die, but neither do we want to invest too much in the expectation that mere choosing will enrich our lives and make us happy.
Schwartz encourages us to cultivate an "attitude of gratitude", and substitute an elusive and ultimately disappointing search for the "best", with a calm acceptance of the concept of "good enough".
I found all this to be yet more evidence that sustainable living is not a discipline that we need to shrink from as onerous, but an ideal to pursue for our own, and the planet's enhanced well-being.

1 comment:

C Robb said...

Ace post Dave,
I've got that book by Schwarz on order from the library and am looking forward to it. I'm particularly intrigued by the idea of limiting choice as being positive for overall happiness. Remember the great health care debates during the clinton administration? One of the points used to defeat universal health care was "it'll limit choice". Here in England we have less choice, at least at low cost, but knowing I can get adequate health care for next to no cost has added to my happiness. For example, getting an epipen in the US, as I am uninsured there, would have cost me over $200. Here, it cost me less than $14. The rich will always be able to afford more choice, they can fly anywhere for the treatment of choice. I am content to have fewer choices I can afford. This also helps keep me focused on prevention; exercise, good nutrition, mind training etc. All practices that increase the sustainability of my lifestyle when practiced with that in mind. As we begin to feel the effects of peak oil, we will all be able to afford fewer and fewer choices, it is comforting to know that this may indeed spark more happiness rather than less. Certainly peak oil will result in more personal gardening, a happy producing activity if there ever was one. Unfortunately the resistance to change is immense, a basic part of the human condition and something that has to be unlearned over and over again. In the cosmic mathmatics of happiness will the angst of change negate the joy of simplicity? Perhaps one has to wade through the muck of fear to reach the flower bed of peace. Cheers