Last night my husband and I ordered up a movie from Netflix, enjoying the convenience of directly streaming the film of our choice to our very own personal television.
At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. In reality, it took us nearly half an hour just to choose a movie. That’s not because of fundamental disagreements about genre (he understands that I’m not going to indulge in Jackie Chan with him, just as I know that he probably won’t want to watch yet another iteration of Jane Austen with me). I suspect our indecision was largely the result of too much choice.
At what point does unlimited choice begin to hamper our enjoyment? It’s not just in entertainment where our options are exploding: In 1949, the average American grocery store carried 3,750 items; today that number is near 45,000. Half a century ago, you might have walked to your little downtown bookstore to find a small selection of a couple thousand titles; today, there are twenty-four million books listed on Amazon.com.
I can’t keep up.
For my forthcoming memoir Flunking Sainthood, I spent a month not shopping and found, to my delight, that life becomes more enjoyable when some options are simply removed from the menu. In my research I read The Art of Choosing, a fascinating book by behavioral psychologist Sheena Iyengar. Her research on choice started when she was a graduate student and used to go to a big weekly market in the Bay Area. Despite the vastness of the market (250 types of cheese!) and her own gourmet tendencies, she hardly ever bought anything there. On a hunch, she decided to try an experiment that wound up becoming the basis for her career research: she set up a table at the market with samples of jam. When she offered six varieties of jam in a taste test, 30 percent of the customers who tried the jam went on to buy a jar or two. When she put twenty-four varieties on her sample table, she had more floor traffic of people stopping by for a taste, but far fewer actually made a purchase—only 3 percent went on to buy a jar of jam. The lesson Iyengar learned from this seemed counterintuitive: there is such a thing as too much choice.
So while I am thrilled with the possibilities of films I can access through Netflix (especially indy and foreign films that would be hard to obtain otherwise), and the instant satisfaction Netflix promises is indeed a wonder, I have to make peace with the idea that I’ll probably never view all the films in my own “instant queue,” let alone all the ones I see scrolling past as possible recommendations.
It may well be that the most important, and most challenging, spiritual practice of our time is in setting limits.
Portions of this blog post are taken from Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood chapter 5, 2011.