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Range of Behaviors

June 7, 2004

You might remember the book “All I really need to know about people I learned in Kindergarten.”

That wasn’t really the title, but it could have been. Children show a range of behaviors that adults never give up.

Consider how a child will completely ignore a toy … until another child picks it up. It’s the first hint that our desires — and thus our satisfaction — are relative.

A natural instinct about competition is at play, too. If I were surrounded by children and happened to pick up one’s toy, chances are nothing would happen. But if I were to hand it to the wrong child, misery and strife would ensue.

But really, you couldn’t learn the many variations on this theme by Kindergarten. It takes a lifetime of suffering.

It is paradoxical that man’s suffering, or pleasure, should be relative, but there it is. It’s been noted and commented upon since ancient times, and this perspective pervades a new book called “The paradox of choice: why more is less.”

The book examines the psychology of choice, but in order to get there, the author looks at how we evaluate information, how we value things, how we find ourselves happy, or not.

Part III – the largest part, I was happy to find – is titled “Why we suffer.” Who could resist that?

This is not a self-help book, per se, but it does offer help in the way of my favorite “self-help” book, “How Proust can save your life,” by Alain de Botton.

The author does not merely present a bleak picture of human nature and then say goodbye. The last chapter discusses what to do about the burdens of choice and includes eleven suggestions, such as how to deal with the pain of opportunity cost and how to cultivate gratitude in yourself. Plus, New Yorker cartoons are sprinkled throughout.

The crux of the book is that we are “awash in material abundance” and yet this societal success has a measurable downside in psychological distress.

I was no sooner done reading than a book appeared on my desk that I’d forgotten I was waiting for. Surely you know the delight in holding a new book by a favorite author.

It is the newest by Alain de Botton, called “Status anxiety.” In perfect coincidence for my own reading, it looks at the history and psychology of status.

He makes the ironic case that issues of status cause more suffering in modern Western democracies than they ever did in societies hard-wired for inequality. I’m only through Part One – Causes.

Part Two offers Solutions, grouped under the headings of Philosophy, Art, Politics, Religion, and Bohemia. I can’t wait. But his examination of the psychological costs of living in a meritocracy is worth the book already.

A further coincidence found me in Aspen Thursday and Friday for the annual Colorado Public Library Directors Meeting. I mean, if you ever want to be challenged about status, choices, regret, and the relativity of all things human, spend a day in Aspen.

Then, as if to counter all such forces, we met in our preferred fashion: We made a circle of tables, and we sat around it and talked – directors with library circumstances varying one-, two-, and three-hundredfold in funding and population.

It’s a favorite meeting for everyone there. And I think one reason is the relief from status and the collegiality of the round table … enjoyed in the ultimate town, of course.

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