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The perils of living in a consumer paradise

With so many things to choose from, why aren't Americans happier than ever?

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Anybody who has ever been inside a supermarket has encountered greater variety in five minutes than Marco Polo was exposed to in a lifetime. Hundreds of breakfast cereals stand across the aisle from as many different cookies, including enough subspecies of chocolate chip to provide the adventurous a new type each day of the month.

But that's just the start: The average grocery store stocks 30,000 distinct items, of which 20,000 are unceremoniously dumped and replaced annually.

Had Marco Polo had access to a PathMark or a Safeway, he could have been a world-class explorer without traveling anywhere. (For breakfast alone, he could have discovered seven kinds of Cheerios.) With so many options to choose from, the poor man would scarcely have had time to get out of town.

Time is only one of many hidden costs of abundance to our society, according to Swarthmore social psychologist Barry Schwartz in his intermittently brilliant sixth book, "The Paradox of Choice."

"As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options," he writes with characteristic directness. "But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction - even to clinical depression."

Were life limited to shopping for chocolate chip cookies and Cheerios, such a claim might seem exaggerated, if not absurd. But, as Schwartz ably documents, we enter an equivalent supermarket of options when deciding where we want to live, for whom we want to work, and even how we want to look. While few have complete autonomy, a combination of technological efficiency and laissez-faire morality have opened more choices to more Americans than ever before.

The report that more Americans are also more unhappy than ever before might simply be a perverse coincidence. We may even question the statistics: As the social stigma associated with depression decreases, people may be more open about their listlessness. They may even feel encouraged to consider themselves depressed as the subject receives so much attention in the media.

Yet, the case Schwartz makes for a correlation between our emotional state and what he calls the "tyranny of choice" is compelling, the implications disturbing. From unmet expectations to regret over the road not taken, the perils of living in a multiple-choice society rival in number the variety of snacks in the largest grocery store.

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