May 31, 2008

Food for Thought

A provocative talk from psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less" explaining his view over a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice.

This is a speech that can easily be misunderstood as a rant on how "old times were better", but believe me is not about that. Is about how the mind works, what makes us happy and how too many choices can hurt us too. It is worth watching.

Why I found it so interesting? Well, as someone that has been living in the US for some time now but that was not born and raised here, I find myself once and again looking at this culture as an anthropologist or a sociologist would do, I just can't help it.

Of course there are many things to praise about the USA, but on the dark side, what I have noticed is that there are too many choices but too little personal responsibility over the choices we made; too much comfort but too little happiness; too much tolerance but too little respect, and a society that seems to have (still) a steady flux of resources but a steady decline in creativity and critical thinking.

I am generalizing of course. But the level of depression and unhappiness is real and the offer of goods seems to increase by the second but the level of happiness or personal satisfaction doesn't seem to raise at all. I am not arguing we should take the route of the "Brave New World", not at all.That was a world of no real choices and no real happiness.

I am arguing in favor or critical thinking. I believe that the mind, -like almost anything else-, needs time and energy to be able to think, to take a step back and think. If it is too busy making decisions all the time and wondering about the 'what if' (the decision was wrong) it has less time and energy to elaborate critical thinking. To step back. To breathe.

I do not agree with Mr. Schwartz on all levels but I do believe that he raises very good points. From my point of view, this overabundance of choices is one of the reasons creativity, education and critical thinking are not in the raise on this part of the world. But is like the egg and the hen. Which one comes first?

Because critical thinking is also the way to avoid being unhappy by our choices. If you start your decision making process by thinking "Do I need this?" and "Why do I need it?" the number of choices decreases immediately and chances are you will make more counscious choices, what implies less unhappiness over them and more personal responsability.

Critical thinking allows you to manage yourself pretty well without feeling overwhelmed, no matter how many choices are out there. Still, I do agree with him that on some things we may have too many choices.

What is the magic number? I don't know either. I know is not one, and I don't think is two either. The presidential elections are a good example: why just two choices? Wouldn't three real options made everything more interesting and less black and white? (pun intended).

What do you think about the choices you have available?

Source: TED

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