Too Much of a Good Thing



I’m standing in the grocery store aisle pondering the Triscuits. There are so many varieties: reduced fat, hint of salt, cracked pepper, balsamic vinegar and basil, roasted garlic, rosemary and olive oil. The list goes on and on. I have a hard time finding plain old “original” Triscuits. The same is true in every other aisle of the giant supermarket. Every potential variety of a food product is on display for my choosing. It’s just too much.

In America, we are blessed with plenty. The cornucopia we haul out to decorate our table each Thanksgiving is a symbol of the promise our country has held for more than 200 years. We have such a high standard of living here that it’s easy to take things for granted: our highway systems, cars, advanced technology, household conveniences such as washers and dryers, dishwashers and the like. And while by no means are all Americans flush with cash, most of us go to bed with our bellies full each night.

The question is, why are so many people unhappy? I understand the unhappiness of a family living in poverty, having utilities cut off and not knowing how they are going to afford rent this month. In fact, a recent study by Princeton University showed that earning at least $75,000 a year helped raise a person’s day to day happiness. Above that, however, the happiness level did not really go up.

I think many of us have so much that we have come to see it as the norm. Our blessings cease to be noted, and we just assume the right to be a two-car family with a house in the suburbs, new Nike sneaks, and an iPhone for everyone.

I was chatting with my daughter the other day, and I said I had an idea for the title of a book: Ungrateful. It would be about a rich, discontented American. She reminded me that a book has already been written on that subject: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. A novel about the dysfunction of an upper middle class family, its title hints at the paradox that may be at the heart of our discontents.

Maybe the downside of our freedom is that we have too many choices. In our parents’ day, roles and expectations were much more proscribed. Nowadays, we are given free rein to be whoever we want to be. Such freedom can lead to insecurity and the sense that maybe we should be doing something else with our lives.

It is up to each of us to learn how to narrow down the choices in our lives, give of our time, money, and talent, and above all be grateful for all we have. These actions may be the key to our own happiness.