Too Many Jelly Beans

jelly beansI know I run the risk of being called trivial with this topic, but that’s okay. Sometimes things like jelly beans are able to symbolize much larger and deeper issues in life, and whenever I see a bag of a certain brand of jelly beans, I can’t help but ask myself, “What’s the point?”

In the world of the makers of this brand of jelly bean, you see, there seems to be a philosophy that “more is better.” If you haven’t had a bag, you’ve probably seen one. In one small 7.7-ounce bag, containing about 175 beans, there are 30 different flavors. Thirty flavors! And the beans themselves are so small that putting just one in your mouth doesn’t do much for you–personally, I like to eat two of the larger jelly beans at a time so that I can enjoy the flavors more. But just try to find two of the same flavor in a bag that has thirty different flavors–it’s quite difficult, and truthfully, it’s not really worth the work–two tiny jelly beans are just a bit unsatisfying.

When I see a bag of them, I’m reminded of an article that a friend sent to me last year. In this article, the author talks about the incredible number of choices available to us for just about everything in life, and the amount of stress involved in having to make choices in virtually every aspect of our lives. While marketers would argue that choice is good because we’re not stuck with just one or two products to choose from, the fact is that most of the choices we face are unnecessary, and the differences between certain products are negligible at best.

When I was a kid, for example, we used to face the choice of Crest, Colgate, Pepsodent, or a couple of other types of toothpaste. If you liked Crest, you bought Crest; otherwise, you bought something else that you liked better.

I’m always amazed now when I go to buy toothpaste–there are at least fifteen different types of Crest alone! There’s tartar control, whitening, cavity control, cavity control with whitening, and several other types. You can also buy Crest in gel or in traditional paste. You can buy the large tubes or the small ones, the ones designed for adults, or those designed for kids. All in all, the decision about which toothpaste to buy is no longer a simple one, which adds another level of complexity to our lives.

Barry Schwartz, the author of the article I mentioned (“When It’s All Too Much”), says that “It seems a simple matter of logic that increased choice improves well-being. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Respected social scientists such as psychologist David G. Myers and political scientist Robert E Lane tell us that increased choice and increased affluence have, in fact, been accompanied by decreased well-being.”

This seems logical. When I bought some toothpaste yesterday, for example (I bought the cheapest tube Crest makes), I left wondering if I should have bought a different kind that might have been better for me and my family. And have you visited the potato chip aisle of the supermarket recently? How am I supposed to know which chips are going to taste the best? Luckily we don’t eat potato chips or corn chips all that much in our household, otherwise I might be reduced to a nervous wreck every time I tried to decide which chips we’ll eat next week.

This problem is fairly easy to deal with, and it involves simply strengthening our decision-making abilities. I simply don’t buy Jelly Belly jelly beans. I buy chips that I know I like, even if I end up buying the same kind over and over again. I’m perfectly comfortable buying generic brands of many things, such as cola and cheese. When I’m faced with a huge number of choices, the first thing I look for is value–the cheapest of anything often is of lower quality, while the most expensive usually includes a huge mark-up to pay for the company’s advertising. Somewhere there in the middle is a good price that indicates decent quality.

The proliferation of choice is often a good thing. If I want to buy a pizza, I’m not stuck buying just one kind that I may or may not like, and it’s nice to be able to choose another option. When I lived in a small city in Spain, there was only one place in town that made pizzas, and they weren’t very good at all. But do we really need thirty different types and brands of frozen pizza in the supermarket? I’m glad that stores are trying to provide something for everyone, but it can go too far.

In the article she sent me, my friend had marked the passage “Teach yourself to be content with the choices you’ve made.” This, of course, is one of the most important strategies in life–if we can do this successfully, we’ll find our lives to be much more simple, much more manageable, and much more enjoyable. We’ll leave behind the tendency to agonize over the options we didn’t choose, and we can focus on what we have and enjoy it to the fullest.

Some people definitely like these jelly beans, and for them, I’m glad there’s a product on the market for them. Personally, though, whenever I have the urge to eat them, I’ll get a package of regular jelly beans with five or six colors and flavors, and I’ll be more than content with that. I simply don’t need to complicate my life with too many choices, and I choose to be satisfied with the choices I make on a more limited level.

Tom Walsh is a student of life and a high-school teacher who has been sharing his website livinglifefully.com with the world for the last fourteen years.

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