Monday, November 4, 2013

Memoir Monday - A Bit of Philosophy

Memoir Monday this week takes a philosophical detour as Chapter Eight in Memoirs of a Starving Artist looks at whether choice brings happiness to our lives.

First, though congratulations to this week's winner of an ebook version, David Womack.  I'll be giving away one more next week, drawn from people on my new release and giveaway mailing list (scroll down sidebar on the right to sign up).  The full book will be released on Amazon and elsewhere November 15th.

In the meantime, on to this week's installment!

Chapter Eight – The Anguish of Freedom

One of the great fallacies of the modern world is that the more choices we have in life, the happier we will be.  This helps explain why automobiles come with so many different options, including numerous choices in engines, wheels, colors, sunroofs, sound systems, interiors and overall configurations.  You can get a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or all-electric.  Two-door, four-door or hatchback.  Theoretically having all of these choices is a good thing, because with them you have the opportunity to get exactly what you want.  The same holds true for all sorts of other products large and small.  Consider toothpaste.  You can get mint gel, baking soda or cinnamon flavor.  Whitening, breath-freshening or tartar control.  These types of choices are among the thousands that we make every day.
Scientific studies have shown that some degree of choice does indeed make us happier.  We don’t all want the same things after all.  After a certain point, however, these studies suggest that the more choices we have, the less happy we tend to be.  Indeed, too much choice can actually make us miserable.
In an article for Scientific American (The Tyranny of Choice, April 2004), psychology professor Barry Schwartz explains some of the reasons for the stresses we face when confronted with an abundance of choice.  First and foremost is the idea of “opportunity costs.”  In our minds, every choice that we make represents not just what we have gained, but also the opportunities that we have lost.  We may have gained the mint gel toothpaste, but we lost the opportunity to try the cinnamon flavor, at least this time around.  The more choices that we have, the more opportunities we must give up in order to make a decision and the greater the sense of loss that we potentially feel afterwards.  A person who chose the mint gel flavor might take it home and think that it is ok, but still regret not having tried the cinnamon, or the baking soda or any other number of options.  It is these regrets added up, large and small, that can leave us feeling decidedly unhappy with our lives.
In his research into this phenomenon, Swartz and his colleagues refer to two different personality types, “satisficers” and “maximizers.”  The first group, the satisficers, are more willing to choose things that they consider to be “good enough.”  They aren’t so worried about making the best possible choice every single time.  They are more relaxed about their decision making.  The other group, the maximizers, do try to make the best possible choice every time.  They are willing to expend much more time and energy into their decisions and are not satisfied with “good enough.”  They are out to ensure that their choice is “the best.”
The biggest difference between these two groups, it seems, comes down to regret.  Maximizers tend to be people who feel regret much more deeply than satisficers.  They aren’t spending greater time and energy on their decisions so much because of what they might gain, but rather because of the sense of loss they are trying to avoid.  It is fear of regret that motivates them.  The greater the number of choices, the more likely they are to feel regret.  The more regret they feel, the less happy they are likely to be.  As Swartz says in his article, “…people with high sensitivity to regret are less happy, less satisfied with life, less optimistic and more depressed than those with low sensitivity.”
These distinctions in personality types don’t just describe our purchasing decisions.  They also go a long way toward explaining how we relate to the world in a much broader sense.  As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We are our choices.”  In other words, the essence of who we are as human beings is determined by the choices that we make, and there is no escaping those choices.  This is what Sartre referred to as the anguish of freedom.  Avoiding a decision is a decision itself and any belief in fate as a way out of this dilemma is self-deception.  Applying these ideas to Schwartz’ research would suggest that so-called maximizers are people who feel this anguish of freedom and decision making more deeply than others.  Freedom and choice are inherently traumatic.  How we cope with that trauma defines in large part who we are as individuals.
Traditional roles in our society tend to load a person up with commitments that severely limit their choices in life.  A traditional job, marriage and the responsibilities of raising children curtail one’s freedom in many ways, though taking on these traditional roles is itself a choice.  Our friends and family may pressure us to assume those roles, hold a normal job, get married and have those kids, but these are choices nonetheless.  By taking on these roles, one is intentionally giving up some of their freedom for the comfort and security that they find in a more traditional life.  When I came home from Australia and went back to work at the engineering company, I already knew that a traditional role was not for me.  The opportunity costs were too much to bear.  I was not willing to give up my freedom.  The choice to quit my job once again, and all of the security it afforded, was still not an easy one.  As I wrote in my journal on June 8th, 1998:

One thing I’m feeling is a mild sense of well-being in that I am here in DC again, and I’m making it on my own.  I have a nice place to live, two nice roommates, and I’m making enough money to get by, pay all my bills easily and save some as well.  This is a feeling that I hate to give up and that was hard to deal with when I left the job last time.  It is never easy to go back to having no job, no income and no prospects.  Usually at work, though, I just keep thinking about how much I want to get out, and how it is melting my brain.

Most of my colleagues at work didn’t seem particularly happy with their jobs either, or their lives for that matter.  They weren’t where they wanted to be, but they stayed because for them it was good enough.  For me, “good enough” was itself not good enough.  I would classify myself as a maximizer in many ways, and this distinction goes a long way toward explaining how I relate to the world in a larger sense.  I don’t sweat the really small stuff, like what kind of toothpaste to buy, but I do have a hard time making personal decisions.  I expend a lot of energy worrying about opportunity costs and the regrets they might engender.  This can make the writers’ lifestyle a particularly difficult one at times.  Most people would never honestly consider picking up and moving to another country, for example, simply because they can.  Their prior commitments act to help simplify their lives.  A writer has no such simplifications.  A writer can live and write anywhere in the world, as long as he is able to afford it.  His life is one of unlimited choices, and thus of exorbitant opportunity costs.  It might be hard for someone not faced with such decisions to fully understand, but these opportunity costs equal the potential for significant regret and despair.  Wherever it is that a writer does choose to live, he is giving up the options of being in any other place on earth.  That is a heady cost.
Even a starving writer like myself has managed to live in numerous exotic locations around the world.  Every time I do choose to go someplace new, the decision as to where is excruciating.  Should I go someplace that I have friends?  Somewhere cheap?  By the sea?  In the mountains?  Will I miss my family?  Will I be away during the holidays, or perhaps miss the wedding of a close friend?  If I go to one place, will I regret not being in another?  If I decide to stay home will I lament the adventures I’m surely missing?  People often tell me that they envy my freedom but they don’t understand how difficult the choices can be.  Finances are always a big factor in my case.  I’d like to think that it would be easier if I could afford to live wherever I really want, but that would only increase my choices.  The real truth of the matter is that I’ll always be a little bit stressed by the decision of where to live next.
These same forces come into play on an even more personal level when it comes to relationships.  I’ve always had what could be considered a “fear of commitment.”  What this really means more than anything is a fear of opportunity costs.  Other issues are also at play, such as the prospect of having to live up to someone else’s expectations and to rearrange my lifestyle, but what worries me most about a serious relationship is the potential sense of loss that might result from it.  All of the other choices of romantic partners out there in the world will suddenly be off-limits.  That is one massive opportunity cost.  On the other side of this equation is the cost of not finding someone to settle down with at all, which means the prospect of growing old all alone.
As with other big decisions in life, some people subscribe to the theory that holding out for their “soul mate” is impractical, since this idealized vision of their perfect partner probably doesn’t exist in reality anyway.  Instead it is better to settle for a relationship that is “good enough.”  These are the satisficers.  Similar to their everyday decisions about what products to buy, they are more likely happier with their relationships than the maximizers who hold out for that illusive perfection.  For the maximizer, who doesn’t want to “settle,” the quest for a soul mate produces expectations that can probably never be met.  This in turn makes the maximizer either eternally single, or dissatisfied with their ultimate choice.  This theory goes a long way toward explaining my own seemingly perpetual bachelorhood.  It’s not just my choice, of course, it is someone else’s as well, but I still hold out hope that eventually I’ll strike a balance between my high expectations and my yearning to spend my life with someone.  I’ll meet that person with whom the desire to grow old together is mutual.
These theories on choice also help explain my writing process.  Maximizers share much in common with perfectionists.  In some ways the definitions overlap.  Perfectionists are looking for order in the universe.  Maximizers want everything to be the best that they can be.  While perfectionists might feel annoyed or adrift if something is out of place, a maximizer will more likely dwell on the regret that things aren’t better.  As far as my writing goes, I could be described as having both tendencies.  This is the reason I am so slow when it comes to my writing.  I go over and over each manuscript time and time again, tweaking this line and that, trying to make sure that the prose is as perfect as it can be.  When it comes to my writing I can never be fully satisfied.  Every time I go over a page I find things to improve, a word here or a sentence there, no matter how many times I’ve gone over it before.  At a certain point I simply have to consider that the manuscript is “good enough” or I would never be finished.  I have to force myself to become a satisficer and move on.
Despite the inherent frustrations, being a maximizer does have its benefits.  I’ve struggled with personal decisions all of my life, yet I’ve also had a vast array of amazing experiences that I will always cherish.  Settling for “good enough” may elicit a greater overall sense of contentment, but holding out for “the best” can make for a unique and extraordinary life.  The trick is to learn not to dwell too much on what you’ve lost, but rather to appreciate what you have.
After just three months back at my job in Washington, I’d reached the end of my rope.  It was time to move on.  This left me with the seemingly eternal question of where I should live next.  On this occasion the choice was not difficult.  An old high school friend of mine was living in San Francisco.  When I told Carlos that I’d quit, he thought it over for a moment and then made me a proposition.  “Why don’t you come out and live on my boat in Sausalito?” he said.  “You can stay here rent-free and write.”
“What’s the catch?” I asked.
“No catch,” he said.  “But if you want to work, you can re-varnish the teak on the boat and I’ll pay you.  It’s up to you.  I got a quote for $10,000 to have it done by a pro.  If you can do it for half, it will be good for us both.”
An offer like this doesn’t come around too often.  I was smart enough to take it.  I packed up my truck and headed west once again. 

No comments:

Post a Comment