A few years back on a chilly fall day my friend Kelly and I took a day trip to Manresa State Park, a beach about an hour drive south of San Francisco. After an afternoon spent meandering through sand dunes we wondered into a quaint seaside town for dinner. We were discouraged to find only two, equally decrepit, restaurants. We briefly discussed the dismal choice, the deciding point was the intriguing facial hair of the clerk behind the counter of the second restaurant. Peering in from the window, I was tickled to see true mutton chops, long sideburns that connect to a mustache. Kelly insisted there was a patch of daylight between the burns and the stache, so we had to come closer to settle the debate.
I lost the bet (maybe I shouldn’t have gone with the bargain basement Lasix surgery clinic…) and sadly the menu was shorter than the clerk’s sideburns. With only 2 or 3 minimally appealing options we settled on our picks in seconds. Our meals tasted like passable truck stop fare, but at least the food was served quickly, there was no hair in the soup, and it was cheap. We left surprisingly contented and couldn’t stop making comments such as “that hamburger was decent, the salad wasn’t wilted, it could have been so much worse!” Later we reflected that if we had the exact same meal in San Francisco we would have been sorely disappointed, with all the choices of the big city expectations rise and one is always wondering if they made the wisest possible selection.
Last year I read a book that provided me with an insightful perspective on my dining experience. The Paradox of Choice, by Psychologist Dr. Barry Schwartz, studies the effect of the explosion of consumer options in modern America. (For a quick summary of his theories watch this lecture http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html) After reviewing the studies on consumer behavior and satisfaction Schwartz concludes that more options decreases happiness because the deliberations create stress, raise expectations, and we instinctively evaluate our choices based on all the possible options. In the author’s words, “if the ability to choose enables you to get a better car, house, job, vacation, or coffeemaker, but the process of choice makes you feel worse about what you’ve chosen, you haven’t gained anything from the opportunity to choose. And much of the time, better objective results and worse subjective results are exactly what our overabundance of options provides.”
Put dietary choice in that last sentence – better objective results and worse subjective results are exactly what our overabundance of dietary options provides. More simply: your efforts to experience an abundance of dietary delights will successfully expose you to a diversity of foods but, ironically, you will enjoy them less than if you had limited your options.
Last week I wrote about the digestive benefits of a simpler diet (http://foodsobriety.net/?p=979) and how so many patients respond with surprising enthusiasm when given dietary restrictions. Beyond the digestive improvements I’m sure many patients are also responding to the same psychological mechanism that Schwartz documents; the lowering of expectations and the diminished stress that comes with fewer deliberations. Approaching diet in this manner promotes a sense of gratitude for the act of simply eating and a deepening sense of pleasure that one can do well with less.