At the dawn of a new decade, I took a few moments to look back on the many changes taking place during my lifetime. The most remarkable development in the last decades is probably the explosion of choices for most of us. And the choices we can make seem to increase year by year. The existing narrative is that this is largely a good and positive development, but is it really so?
In January 1970 – fifty years ago, I was 10 years old. At that time, the number of choices to make was relatively manageable. There were two state TV channels (the second one launched only one year earlier). In the stores there was a rich, but yet limited, choice of food (the more exotic ones being, rice, pasta, oranges, pineapples and bananas), and a few brands of soap, toothpaste and shampoo. Fast food was mainly limited to hot dogs, and in my town the first pizzeria had not yet opened.
Most people still went on vacation within Sweden and neighbouring countries by bus, car or train, although charter tours to Italy, Spain and Greece had recently started to become available to a broader public (my first own family charter travel to Italy was still two years in the future). We were assigned to a school in the neighbourhood, and the first real choice for many was to decide whether to continue to study or start to work after secondary school.
Fast forward to January 2020. I have just spent Christmas and New Year with a colleague in England, and for my next vacation, I could easily arrange a trip to almost any place on earth, choosing among hotels, car rentals, restaurants and adventure tours. In my local food store, there are food from all over the world, with the most exotic tastes imaginable, and I can choose not between three brands of shampoo, but between 50, and probably equally many kinds of youghurt.
If I want to watch TV, there is an almost limitless amount of TV channels to chose between, and if that wasn’t enough, I have a couple of millions (or maybe billions) of YouTube clips at my immediate disposal. And I can choose which one of maybe 30 different electricity providers to power my smart TV. For families with children, there is a plethora of schools to choose between, and a huge number of organised after-school activities.
Life today is undoubtedly much richer than it was fifty years ago. The choices we can make, add to our experiences, not least travelling to other countries and exploring other cultures and ideas. The possibility to spend some time of the university studies in another country is a tremendous opportunity to learn and to grow.
But with all our choices and possibilities, are people generally happier today than they were 50 years ago? I don’t think so. Life with no choices is grey and boring, but beyond some modest limits the many choices will just add anxiety. Collectively, we spend an immense time choosing between options that are only marginally different, and none really adding any more quality to life than the other. This is time wasted, which will never be given back to us, and takes away from more meaningful activities in the company of others.
Instead of being fulfilled by all the possibilities, depression rates, especially among teenagers, have never been higher, and the ready-made, pre-packaged small chunks of entertainment, is depleting our minds rather than making us wiser, more knowledgeable and more creative.
The enormous amount of easy entertainment and information on our computers and smartphones place us in bubbles where we have little common cultural references with our colleagues and neighbours. Only having one TV programme to watch may have been boring (although this is not how I remembered it), but it provided opportunities to share our impressions and discuss it the next day with the friends that had all watched the same programme. The information given, was also mostly correct, although sometimes with an angle. Now we need all the time be on guard and ask ourselves if we are deliberately being fed with misinformation. This is a source of mistrust and suspicion.
We indeed have an unimaginable possibility to choose, but the supply of choices, in combination with smart and aggressive marketing, push us to often make the wrong choices. Choices that do not add quality to our lives, choices that isolate us rather than bring us closer to other people, choices that cost us time and money and deplete our common global resources.
And the more choices we have, the less satisfaction these choices will give us – pushing us to just want more and more in an endless vicious cycle that we can only get out of if we deliberately decide to spend our lives in more meaningful ways than choosing.
Illustration: Pixabay.com – gingerbreadca