Monday, April 05, 2010

Abundance and Choice -- Sightings

Does having more options and more choices make you happier?  That is the question posed by Martin Marty on this "Easter Monday," a day I understand many clergy take off.  Alas, the office is closed but I've got an evening meeting.  But back to our choices.  We live in an age of increasing options, but does this make us happier?  Studies suggest that maybe that's not so true.  I'll let you decide if this is true or not, as you read Marty's essay and offer your own response to the question.


Sightings 4/5/10

Abundance and Choice
-- Martin E. Marty

“Easter Monday,” Christian clergy call today. Rabbis probably have an analogous term for their well-earned day or week or fortnight off following holiday holiday ceremonies. After too much heavy, even sometimes traumatic, religion news, let’s use this Sightings for lighter, let’s hope nuanced, “news.” The topic: Choice in Religion. It takes off from Evan Goldstein’s long article “To Choose or Not to Choose” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which I commend to you, because it deals with unfinished business on the “choice” front.

Goldstein portrays Sikh-nurtured, Columbia psychology professor Sheena Iyengar, who, incidentally, is blind, but who has seen something that many overlooked and may still question. Her thesis: While we cherish choice in supermarkets, commodities in general, and even in religious and spiritual life, an abundance of options does not necessarily yield happiness. “In 1949 a typical American supermarket carried 3,750 items. Today that number is close to 45,000.” Yet Americans are grumpy. Illustrations of her thesis are abundant in Goldstein’s article, so I had to “choose” which to lift. I passed over many more, unhappily, to get to the religious point, which is relevant here.

Every survey I have seen suggests that choice is an enormous factor in American religious life today. Sometimes I ask audiences mentally to recreate great grandmother’s world. My four would have gone through life in a Swiss or a German village never meeting someone who was not of their faith. Today choice seems limitless. Citizens can choose to be Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Methodists, or Druids. Does choosing make them happy? Here Goldstein cites the debaters over happiness, led by psychologist Martin Seligman, whose controversial findings and proposals also prompt more discussion.

Is there escaping “choice” in a free society’s free market of free religion? Not really. Next weekend I am speaking at the Presidential Forum at Indiana’s Bethany Seminary, where “the social movement of Brethren, Friends, and Mennonites” assesses its present and projects its futures. To anyone at a little distance, these groups seem homogeneous and settled. But the “Anabaptist” yearbook of their “tribes” – their word – lists thirteen different Amish, twenty-four Brethren, four Hutterite, and fifty-seven Mennonite groups, whose adherents, numbering from 15,000 to 127,000 in America, are aware of their differences from each other (and, I hope, of their commonalities). Add various Society of Friends (Quaker) groups and you get the idea. Choice among these can be alluring and even fateful; some arch-disciplined groups formally “shun” deviant members while other Anabaptists are impressively welcoming (I will be hosted by the latter sort at Bethany).

Fusing Seligman’s view of optimism and happiness with her theories about abundance, Iyengar interviewed six hundred citizens. Her findings confirmed Seligman’s shocker: “Reform Jews and Unitarians are depressed and pessimistic; Orthodox Jews and Calvinists are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and hopeful. The finding was quite uncongenial to everything I believed.” Indeed, a few years ago conservative evangelicals advertised findings which revealed that they were more satisfied with their marital sex lives than were liberals. Are pick-and-choose “spiritual” or liberal religious people so busy choosing that they don’t get to have pleasure in their choices? I will not draw conclusions or try to spell out meanings and strategies if Professors Seligman and Iyengar’s theses are right. Instead, I will take my own post-Easter “week-off” and end it enjoying my friends the Anabaptists.


Evan R. Goldstein, “To Choose or Not to Choose,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 April 2010.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Laura Lindenberger Wellen considers how illustrations in various editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) have contributed to a sense of that novel's place as what one scholar calls "the Summa Theologica of nineteenth-century America's religion of domesticity." Specifically she focuses on Miguel Covarrubias, who immigrated from Mexico during the 1920s and was active during the rich artistic and political era known as the Harlem Renaissance. Wellen argues that Covarrubias's visual representations in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which rely on a sensibility at play in Harlem of the 1930s, in effect "reanimate the religious and political tensions which made Stowe's text such a popular and controversial text in the 1850s." With invited responses forthcoming from John Howell (University of Chicago Divinity School), Amy Mooney (Columbia College Chicago), and Jo-Ann Morgan (Western Illinois University).


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


David Mc said...

If one waited for the perfect church, one never would choose. That's why we "settled in" at CWCC.

Hey, this reminds me of a cute movie-

Supermarket manager
Aisle 2.
Coffee line, please?
Supermarket manager
Aisle 2. No line, though.
Taster's Choice... decaffeinated... Maxwell House... El Pico... Chock Full of Nuts.. espresso, cappucino... Café Français... Sanka... Folgers... Cafe Caribe... coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee! Coffee!! COFFEE!!!

(he has a nervous breakdown)

David Mc said...

Hey, I found it!

John said...

“Reform Jews and Unitarians are depressed and pessimistic; Orthodox Jews and Calvinists are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and hopeful. The finding was quite uncongenial to everything I believed.”

Perhaps it has more to do with having a controlling personality. Some people must control everything in their lives from driving the car, the meals served at dinner, the children's homework, and the pastor's sermon. Such people are also very wary of their choice of religious affiliation - and vigilant that their church and pastor consistently reflect their religious values. When they sense a failure, they move on to another church, or just give up on organized religion - too hard to control!

My premise continues with the notion that there are many religionists who are relatively comfortable entrusting their faith and their faith issues to the guidance of their pastor. They are sometimes disturbed when the unexpected happens, but they quickly recover their trust and stay connected. I believe that in other parts of their life such people have a tendency to trust others more easily as well. Ultimately, such trusting spirituality leads to a life with much less stress overall.

Controlling people tend to be hyper-vigilant and that takes a toll on on's happiness.

I am not suggesting that vigilance is a bad thing, but I don't think it contribute significantly to happiness.


John said...

To finish my point,

While I think that a lot of religious progressives are "controlling," I also think that many religious conservatives are just as "controlling." I am guessing that these conservatives are just as hyper-vigilant as their progressive counter-parts, but their vigilance is directed at seeing that their pastor consistently represents the faith (of their childhood?). They too do not trust their pastor's judgment.

I would suppose that these hyper-vigilant religious conservatives are not as happy as other religious conservatives.

Perhaps it comes down to how trusting one is.