Everybody needs a fishbowl

Five weeks from last Tuesday, I had a midlife crisis because of a chair. A slob by avocation (if not vocation), I’d finally become fed up with myself and decided to weed-whack my office, heave out anything that was actively rotting, and get some better stuff. I needed a new computer monitor, a drafting table, and a chair: something to look at, something to sit at, and something to sit on.

I hopped online and within minutes was drowning in choices. I found (these are real numbers) 4,634 computer monitors, 54 drafting tables, and 228 drafting chairs — that’s 57,053,808 possible combinations of three utilitarian items.

I began whittling. Reading reviews. Tossing out the cheap stuff and the gold plated. Eliminating the cheesy, the chintzy and any chair covered in plaid. I hemmed in the mornings, hawed in the evenings, and after weeks of hair-pulling, I pared it down to 12 possible monitors, 18 potential tables, and one of 70 chairs — I was down to 15,120 combinations. Then, I cried into my sleeve and sifted it down to 4, 12, and 5, leaving me a mere 240 different configurations.

Oh, the agony.

Eventually, after sleepless nights, much hand-wringing, second-guessing and Advil, I overcame my fear, went to three websites, made three purchases, and sat back in a cold sweat to wait for FedEx.

And now here I sit on my new chair, at my new table, staring at my new monitor, and I could be miserable.

According to psychologist Barry Schwartz, people in western industrialized societies are paralyzed by choice — with so many options, we find it difficult to choose anything at all. And, even if we overcome our paralysis and pick door #3, we will always be nagged by the possibility that what was behind door #1 (or #2 for that matter), would have made us happier. “Whenever you’re choosing one thing, you’re choosing not to do the other thing,” Schwartz said in a 2005 TED.com lecture.

And even when (if) we (finally!) make a choice, if anything about the result disappoints us, we blame ourselves. Decades ago, “when there were few options and low expectations, if you weren’t satisfied, the world (was) responsible,” Schwartz said. “What could you do? But (now) with lots of choices and high expectations, when you are dissatisfied, the responsibility is yours — you could have done better. The secret to happiness is low expectations.”

Beginning five weeks from last Tuesday, all this mind-numbing psycho-economic-this-that-or-the-other-thing analysis left this middle-aged man in want of a chair and full of doubt, holding his debit card in the air but nearly unable to swipe.

Schwartz ended his lecture with a cartoon from The New Yorker in which a parent fish was addressing a child fish from the confines of a tiny fishbowl. “You can be anything you want to be — no limits,” the parent fish said.

When Schwartz first saw the cartoon, he was incensed. “Nothing is possible in the fishbowl,” he said. The cartoon was the product of “an impoverished imagination, a myopic view of the world.” But the more he thought about it, the more Schwartz realized that the fish was on to something. “If you shatter the fishbowl so that everything is possible, you decrease satisfaction… (and) you increase paralysis,” he said. (The fish would certainly agree.) Speaking of people, “the absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery, and I suspect, disaster,” Schwartz concluded.

Sitting here in my office, I take up about the same amount of space (proportionally) as the fish in his fishbowl. And we both can be anything we want to be, within limits — but, paradoxically, limits can be liberating, even necessary. And, like the fish with his gravel, plastic plant, and bubbling treasure chest, I’ve decided to be happy with my new monitor, table, chair, and my view out into the world.

“Everybody needs a fishbowl,” Schwartz said at the end of his lecture.

I just went online, and between Amazon and eBay, I found 2,763 fishbowls — you choose.

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