One side effect of entitlement is to accumulate more than you need. We are surrounded by consumerism and there is no way to escape it unless you live the life of a sasquatch. “Consumerism infiltration” begins when you are only a few months old and doesn’t end until you’re, well, probably dead.
Advertising expenditures in the United States top $300 billion annually – which means every man, woman and child in America has over $1,000 in advertising dedicated just to them each year. Superbowl ads now top $3 million for a 30 second spot. I recently had my kids do an experiment by picking a random show on TV and counting how many commercials were shown for its duration. They picked “My Little Pony,” a show on The Hub. I thought for a 29 minute show there would be 6 or 7 commercials, 8 tops. I was wrong - it was double that (15)! Companies are in a fierce battle to get their product into your hands and they are willing to pay for it handsomely.
One way companies try to get you to buy their products is by giving you a myriad of choices. My husband asked me to pick him up some razors at the store recently and it took me 5 minutes just to try and figure which one to choose because there were 38 choices. 5 blades or 3 blades? Disposable or refills? Hard grip or comfort grip? Then I stopped by the yogurt aisle. I counted and there were 321 choices. 321 choices!!!!
It isn’t just at the grocery store either. We had to buy carpet recently and the showroom was filled with hundreds of fuzzy rectangles in every color, shade and texture imaginable. Flabbergasted by it all, I called my mom (who was born in 1930) and asked her about how many choices she had when she grew up, like for milk. Her answer? One (there are 76 at my local grocery store).
I have to admit it is fun to have choices. Our favorite “ice cream” store right now is Menchie's, which let’s you make your own frozen yogurt creation in an assembly-line fashion. You have 16 choices of frozen yogurt (you could have bits of all 16 if you want), 20 “candy” topping choices, 10 fruit-topping choices, then top it all off with 5 “sauce” choices like hot fudge or caramel. I suck at math, but I believe that equates to a bazillion quadrillion combinations. Something to appease everyone’s individual palate!
Why so many choices? I am going to make an educated guess and say that one of the reasons is because the consumer started to demand choices. Our entitled, demanding nature led to this distended, nauseating sea of variety. And we eat it up (no pun intended). Choice is also a big buzzword in other areas of our culture. It is not just with consumable items, but it extends into politics, philosophy, religion, etc. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not rallying for a society with no choice. On the contrary, I believe God created us as beings with a free will to make choices, and we should be grateful when we have the freedom to choose one option over another. But where I think it gets out of hand is when we become ungrateful and dissatisfied when presented with situations that don’t give us the exact right choice that we want. That is entitlement.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that one psychologist, Barry Schwartz, agreed with me on this point. In 2003 he wrote a book called “The Paradox of Choice”, which is about how choices make us miserable. In a talk he gave on his book, he said:
“All this choice has two negative affects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all….The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be than if we had fewer options to choose from.”
Dr. Schwartz gives four reasons for why this is. One, with so many options presented to us, we imagine the ones we didn’t choose and it can make us regret our choice. Two, it is easy to imagine the attractive features of alternatives that you reject and that takes away from the satisfaction you should have with the choice you made. Three, more choices make our expectations escalate. When we have one choice, our expectations are low, but when given dozens of choices, then we expect that one of those choices must be perfect. Four, with too many choices we “self-blame,” which leads to depression. To explain what he means by that, when there is only one choice and that choice disappoints, then it is someone else’s fault for making a bad product. However, if we have tons of choices, and the one we chose turns out to be bad, then we only have ourselves to blame for picking the wrong one - it is our fault – and we internalize the disappointment.
On the other side of the spectrum are those who have little to no choice. Our family sponsors a few kids overseas who come from very poor countries. One of these children is an 11 year old girl from India who lost her father, and her mother didn’t have the money to feed her anymore so she was sent to a children’s home. Many of the kids in her situation don’t own a pair of shoes. They have very few choices, if any at all. If they are one of the lucky few that get a sponsor, then they will probably receive one pair of shoes. And you know their response? Gratitude. Deep, sincere gratitude. On the other hand, my middle child has 8 pairs of shoes, and it doesn’t even register in her 7 year old brain that she needs to be grateful for having so many when others have none. It is so wrong, and entitlement is the invisibility cloak that covers that part of our psyche that should be registering contentment and gratitude, even if it is just one of something.
So we are going to spend a month learning to live with little to no choices, and to be grateful with having one of something. Hopefully by the end of the month we will have some of that invisibility cloak removed and will learn to be more content and grateful for what we have, even if there is only one (or none)!
We spent some time deciding what things to only have one of for our “one is enough” experiment. I think we settled on two main areas: our dishes and our shoes. Washing the dishes is the one chore my husband can tolerate, so he came up with the idea of having only one dish per person. He pointed out how many times we run the dishwasher a day (at least once) and how we seem to have more dishes than our cupboards can handle. So we all now get one dish, one bowl, and one cup. Each person is also responsible for cleaning their own dish or they either don’t eat or they eat on a dirty dish. The second area I chose, and I chose shoes, simply because it is a pet peeve of mine that we have too many. I swear our shoes procreate in the middle of the night, as half the time it looks like a shoe store barfed in our entryway. So everyone is picking one pair of shoes, and that is the ONE pair of shoes they get for the whole month.
Well, I guess I am learning our family has little self-control. Since we still have out all the remaining dishes and shoes, when we get lazy, we just cheat and get a different dish (or paper plate) or a different pair of shoes. So I spent the week boxing up all of our dishes and all of our shoes. I discovered a number of shoes and dishes that we have not used in a while, so those I put in a good will box. Now we are FORCED to stick with our one dish or pair of shoes. I did notice one interesting thing with each area. For the dishes, I realized that we have way more guests over to eat than I thought, almost once a day. After a week of not being able to offer them a dish, I made a “guest” dish section. As for the shoes, I am noticing the kids are getting better with not losing their shoes, because if they can’t find them, they don’t get to do things like going over to a friend’s house to play.
Shockingly, my most phlegmatic child is kicking all our butts in consistently washing her dish after each meal. We are noticing that it takes many days, not just one, to fill the dishwasher. Joel justified why he needs three pair of shoes, but other than that everyone else seems to not mind having only one pair of shoes. Having fewer shoes makes life a bit easier, and the front closet has never had to be straightened up or cleaned since we put the rest of the shoes away. There is nothing in there anymore to make it messy!
So we are into week four of our one pair of shoes and one set of dishes experiment, but I feel we are getting accustomed to them, if not accepting of them. So we need to turn up the heat a bit and expand it into other areas now. Where would be really hard to not have a choice? What do each of us hold dear, where we expect or demand a choice? For me, I think it is with music (actually food too, and TV shows, exercise, oh boy my list is long...). But I will choose music, because my listening to it is a daily ritual, and I am constantly jumping around different genres as I drive, work on the computer, or clean. For Joel, I need to think about it more (I will update you next week). For Morgan, it is hands down her books (her library is out of control). For Meagan, it is clothes (she changes her outfits three times a day). For Emmy, well, probably her toys (THAT should be fun to try and enforce playing with just one toy)!
So mom upped the ante, and some of us fared well while others did not. I realized it was not that hard to not listen to music for a week, and in hindsight, I would of had someone else other than me pick my item to give up. Joel gave up coffee a week, and did fine (I think...). I caught Morgan a few times trying to sneak a book, and I made her go outside instead. Meagan had a meltdown (or two, maybe three?) over not having clothes choices, which makes me VERY nervous about when she gets older and is a teenager! Emmy just did not understand very well the one toy rule, which was often broken when we went on playdates. But outside her frustration, she ended up finding regular household items to play with once she got bored with the one toy.
This was a fantastic experiment. It had so many side benefits! The house was cleaner, decisions were made quicker, and I think it clicked with some of us that we need to be very grateful for what we have around us. Such abundance! With a few exceptions, we really didn't miss or was bitter about having only one of something. We definitely will be redoing this experiment in the near future, and for the immediate future, we are paring down many of the multiple things we have.