The world is full of abundance and opportunity, but far too many people come to the fountain of life with a sieve instead of a tank car... a teaspoon instead of a steam shovel. They expect little and as a result they get little - Ben Sweetland

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Shattering the fishbowl – the paradox of choice

The law of attraction is about choice. We are free to choose our experience. I recently watched a short lecture given by the American psychologist and social scientist Barry Swartz. Here I will summarize the lecture and offer some thoughts on its content as it is relevant to the law of attraction.

The lecture is about the consequences of the amazing levels of choice we have to deal with now, choice which just a few years ago was hardly imaginable. It’s certainly true – to give a rather trivial example, just look at the number of social bookmarking options you have for submission of this article – you can digg it, Stumble Upon it, add it to dropjack or technorati, there’s,, blogmarks, frazzle, linkroll, scuttle, reddit, not to mention Myspace, facebook … the list goes on and on. And social bookmarking didn’t even exist a short time ago.

In the lecture, Swartz expresses the view that the explosion of choice which has taken place in recent decades is a bad thing, and that although the conventional thinking that more choice is a good thing because it produces more freedom and hence a better quality of life, in fact this explosion of choice impoverishes our experience of life. He gives the following reasons for this.

1. It produces paralysis. When faced with too much choice, people do not act because it is too hard to choose.

2. When we do choose, we are less satisfied with our choice, since we are always comparing our choice to the options we didn’t choose and so we are always left with the feeling that our life could be better.

3. Our expectations increase and this, naturally, produces less satisfaction. We can never be pleasantly surprised because we are already expecting an excellent experience. In a sense, he claims, the secret to happiness is low expectations.

4. Responsibility is transferred to the individual. Given that we have to choose and that our choice seems to lead to less satisfaction, we are left feeling that our action has been ineffective. Swartz sites statistics about how clinical depression has increased greatly in resent decades and attributes this to the misery brought about by too much personal choice.

As far as I can tell, Swartz is arguing that we need to be restricted and live in a metaphorical fish bowl. He uses a cartoon of two fish in a bowl, one is saying to the other ‘you can be anything you want to be – no limits.’ Of course, the cartoon is absurd – the fish has no options at all but cannot see this. But another reading of the cartoon is that, as Schwartz puts it, the fish knows something; it knows that if the bowl is smashed and ‘everything is possible,’ you don’t have satisfaction, you have paralysis. So we all need a fish bowl of some kind and the absence of such a fish bowl is a recipe for misery and disaster.

I hope I have done justice to the Swartz's lecture, which is here - I suggest you watch the whole thing: it's about 20 mins long.

So is this all true? Is choice really a bad thing? Swartz appears to argue that yes, too much choice is inherently bad. I am going to make a few brief observations.

Firstly, change is inevitable. I don’t think anyone would disagree with this. In all aspects of life, change is unavoidable. It is the only real constant, the only thing that’s truly predictable. Change in the level of choice we experience, both personally and at a social level, is therefore inevitable, and so we may experience an increase or a decrease in our level of choice at any given time.

However, it is the nature of things to grow, to expand, to increase, as I have written about elsewhere. This is why biological life becomes ever more complex through evolution, why computers become more advanced and why language develops, to name but a few obvious examples. So it is also inevitable that, on the whole, the level of choice we experience will keep growing, since we cannot avoid ever increasing levels of complexity and specialization. Look at any area – Science, society, music, art – you will see a proliferation of complexity. (The underlying structure of all this may, in fact, be quite simple, but this is a topic for another article).

Thirdly, we are free to choose our experience. We create our own reality, and we have always been able to do so. More complexity, more choice, means that we can experiment more, try out new things, more easily attract new and exciting experiences into our life.

Finally, there are always those who thrive and those who fail in response to any change. When the environment changes and you are not suited to the environment, the choice is stark – either adapt quickly or die. This is life; this is how the universe works. It is true of business, of language, of culture, of religion, of Science, of biological life, … and it is true for you and me. An increase in complexity and choice has made people successful apparently beyond their wildest dreams – look at India, China and Russia – entrepreneurs have taken on the new opportunities which choice affords and made a fortune. Others have bemoaned the changes and gone to the wall.

What is needed is a new paradigm, a new way of looking at the world, whereby we are able (at least) to navigate our way though the complexity and, better still, to find a way of turning it to our advantage. My mission is to teach as many people as possible how to live a happy, fulfilled, wealthy, abundant life – could I ever have got my message across without the Internet? Well, yes, but the proliferation of social networking platforms, blog catalogues and carnivals, link exchange programmes, search engines, and all the rest of it actually makes it more likely that I can reach a big audience.

What we need is a light, playful attitude, not taking the world or ourselves so seriously, celebrating and reveling in wonderful and ever increasing complexity. This fish bowl has been shattered and we cannot go back to the water – now we need to learn how to live in a new world.

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