1,001 Arabian bites: Too much choice detracts from the quality of life

Choice for its own sake can have a reductive effect and should not be confused with the freedom to choose.

Old habits die hard, and the collection I keep is alive and well. Some rituals are as plain as porridge, which isn't to say I'm known for habitually eating breakfast. No, my mornings commence with hot black coffee and public radio; I wear the colour black almost exclusively and I'm a compulsive flosser. Other rituals range from the eccentric to the intrusive. On the behavioural end of things, I've honed procrastination into an art form. Also, my need to double-check the cooker's gas burners after a dinner borders on obsessive-compulsive.

Our daily lives are peppered with routines both unconscious and deliberate. These regimens both embody and relieve the tedium of the day's joys and toils. They reduce the need to plan and to focus hard on things to which we've grown accustomed or attached. Recently, I found the food diary I had kept for a graduate school nutrition class. We were required to update it daily for the entire semester, recording every morsel we ingested. While flipping through it, I realised that, aside from coffee, I rarely eat the same meal more than once a week. Breakfasts could consist of anything - if anything at all: leftovers at home, an omelette at a diner, a muffin from the coffee shop, an apple, an ibuprofen - or just coffee and the paper.

Each passing year, my pursuit of experiences that fascinate and intrigue has ebbed to accommodate new priorities, people, places and possibilities; ones I find nourishing and fulfilling in more primal ways. Doing things that are interesting has become less important than doing things that are excellent. And although it has taken me a while to figure it out, my love of food is very much about a love of novelty and surprise. It's a love that lies in the balance between fascination and nourishment, both of which I crave. I don't think I'm alone in this, and it sometimes strikes me as being contrary to today's accelerated neurotic culture of wanting - and getting - progressively more control over our lives and the things within them.

Decision-making is inherently stressful, more so for some people than others. Even something as simple as going out for ice cream can be stressful when the stack of tiny tasting spoons is piling up and you still can't choose between the coffee toffee crunch and the caramel fudge swirl. Our intrinsic love of novelty is easily manipulated, because presentation and packaging can be so deceiving. For many, the idea of succumbing to chance is uncomfortable. We're obsessed with making the wrong choices. Would that be an issue if we had fewer choices?

Choice is a divisive issue. When it comes to menus, I'm pro-choice only on principle. My nature is conservative. Why? Because I hate navigating encyclopedic menus when I know there's no way the kitchen can execute all the dishes equally well; I just want the inferior dishes weeded out and the menu rewritten. Conversely, I know people who balk at the idea of eating at small restaurants with only one or two main courses on the menu, even with the promise of those dishes being perfectly fresh, seasonal and delicious. Most people prefer choice over chance, even if the former is guaranteed to be mediocre and the latter has the potential to be fantastic.

There are many reasons for this. One is simply that we're spoiled; we want to be able to waltz into a supermarket in January and walk out with tomatoes if that's what we feel like eating. Another reason is that having multiple choices is a symbol of status, and we're so conditioned to paradigms that glorify choice and its implicit luxury that we have a blind spot for choice as a liability, which it can be.

With the insidious abundance of metaphors about life's open doors, it should follow that there's an abundance of metaphorical dust and debris that can enter through them. Is the obsession with making the right choice generational? My peers and I worry about finding the "right" job, the "right" partner, the "right" home. My best friend from college has such a paralytic phobia about decision-making that he devised a method of obtaining his supplies, which he calls "aleatoric shopping".

Repelled by the relentless rows of novelties, he separates his shopping needs into categories - meat, cheese, veg, soap, for example - then simply buys the first item within reach or whatever is on sale. He applies this tactic to every category on the list and is in and out of the shop in minutes. It's certainly true that if you give the same chocolate chip cookie recipe, ingredients and baking assignment to 50 home cooks, none of the final results will resemble any other.

Something that is worth noting about variation and diversity in life is that we have a tendency to believe that they will bring a greater chance of randomness and spontaneity into our lives, but in fact, there is a tipping point beyond which everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator. At critical mass, diversity becomes its very opposite, a colossal watering down of the things that set individuals apart.

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