About six years ago I moved from Utah to Seattle. Our apartment complex sat next to a large outdoor mall that included a grocery store. I discovered that I could easily walk out the back door of my apartment and get to the store in less than five minutes, so I bought a wire grocery cart and spent the next two years shopping exclusively at one grocery store (supplemented occasionally by trips to Costco about twenty minutes away). I’m sure there were nearby stores with lower prices, but for me the convenience of shopping in one place, especially a store that offered child care while you shop, was worth limiting my options. Each week I would peruse the sale flyer for the cheapest foods and plan my menu around them, sometimes stocking up if things happened to be particularly cheap.
After Seattle we moved to a small town in Northern California. Again I found it easier to shop at just one grocery store once I found one that combined my ideals of convenience, price, and quality of foods. After a few months of living in California we decided to sign up for produce delivery from a local organic farm. Again, the trade-off of limited options came with the benefit of convenience and quality. Most of the time I loved planning my meals around the delightful surprise of whatever happened to show up on my doorstep that week (except for a particular week in January when we received spinach, kale, collard greens, chard, and mustard greens all at once).
Then, after slightly less than a year in California we moved back to Utah. One of the reasons why we picked our neighborhood is the fact that it is centrally located and close to shopping, work, and entertainment. I live within a 10-minute drive of six different grocery stores, Super Target, Super Walmart, Costco, and two natural foods stores. Oh, and several farms around here sell fresh produce all summer. I also discovered couponing websites that described various store sales and coupons you could use with them in order to maximize my bargain shopping. At first all this selection was great—I loved having so many choices in my shopping and so many ways to save money. Then, after a while, shopping started to stress me out. Each week I had to decide where I was going to spend my time and money. Should I go to Smiths to take advantage of the great sale on cereal? Or should I swing by Costco to get the milk and bread because they have the best price? I probably should go to Target because I need to get my son new underwear, and their price on milk is good. But, none of these stores has good produce so I should swing by Sprouts and get some fruits and veggies. But then I also need to go to Winco to get some more oatmeal from the bulk bins. I will admit that I’ve had too many weeks shopping like a chicken with its head cut off trying to get the best deal and the best quality without missing out.
Problems like having too many grocery stores to shop at are often dismissed as ‘first-world problems’, and in fact they are. I’m grateful I have so much food available to me, a car to go get it with, and money to buy it. However, phenomena like ‘decision fatigue’ and ‘choice overload’ are real issues that are being studied by social scientists and psychologists, who have found that having too many choices can cause just as much unhappiness as having too few of them. In his book The Paradox of Choice, author Barry Schwartz argues that our current Western culture contributes to dissatisfaction by offering us myriad options in most aspects of our lives, from the mundane to the momentous, and then by placing pressure on us to celebrate our freedom and confirm our identity by making the ‘right’ choice for our needs thousands of times on a daily basis. When we have so many choices to make it can be too easy to constantly feel like we are missing out on something better.
I always feel choice anxiety when Christmas time rolls around each year. First I have to decide on gifts—I would love to buy my children so many fun things, but for the sake of my budget and the sake of their personal development I have to set limits. Perusing catalogs gives me pangs when I see all the things that would make their faces light up on Christmas morning, while knowing I can only choose one. Even worse are the blog posts, status updates, and Christmas letters I receive from friends and family. So many good things we could do as a family! What would best help my children feel the Christmas spirit? Should we do a Secret Santa project? Volunteer at the homeless shelter or food bank? Send gifts to the military overseas? Buy farm animals for children in Africa? Go to a Christmas concert? The ballet? A tree lighting ceremony? Festival of Trees? Elf on a Shelf? Advent calendar? Make cookies for our neighbors? Make or buy gifts for Grandma and Grandpa? Send Christmas letters? Teacher gifts? Even when I choose a few good things that I know are right for my family, it is so easy to only see the 1,000 good things we could be doing instead of the 4 or 5 we are doing. This year I have resolved to remember that I can’t do everything, I don’t have to do everything, and I don’t want to do everything. And, the choices I make for what we do as a family may or may not be the same as another person’s but that doesn’t mean they are the wrong one. I also know I’m going to go see Les Miserables on Christmas afternoon—that’s one choice that I know I won’t regret.
How do you feel about the level of choice you have in your life? Does making choices stress you out? How do you decide when and where to spend your time during the holidays?