Perhaps you’ve experienced it standing in front of a staggering number of yogurt containers, all of which look roughly the same but seem to promise not only different contents, but also different benefits and virtues. Or maybe it took you down when you were trying to select unique drawer pulls for your newly constructed home with its sterile, cookie-cutter bathroom cabinets. Or, like former New York Times columnist Virginia Heffernan, you were gob-smacked when your friend Mike coined a term that so perfectly described how you felt when you just wanted to buy some detergent to wash your clothes but there were [deep breath] … Just. So. Many.
Pleniplessence, Heffernan told us way back in 2008 (when surely there was less on the shelves than there is today) is “paralysis induced by the sight of how many options are available to us for virtually everything we want to purchase.”
Psychologists call it overload and point to studies confirming what we already know: It leads to mental exhaustion and a lack of willpower.
My friend Judy Ann told me years ago that one of the unanticipated benefits of her vegetarianism was that ordering in a restaurant was a cinch. Back then, there was typically one vegetarian option. “I’ll take that,” she would tell our server, smiling serenely and closing the menu as I agonized.
Michael Pollan’s Food Rules include “Don’t make it complicated.” This, coupled with his advice to “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” became for me the guidance to buy only items that my grandparents, born in the 1800s, would approve. Pam cooking spray, for instance, raised my grandfather’s ire. “That’s not food!” he declared, spotting it in my parents’ pantry. Thereafter, I returned home from visits with him, laden down with pounds of butter. I can only imagine how he would have responded to Go-gurt.
My neuroscience-student daughter told me recently about how not getting what we want can actually make us as happy (or happier!) as getting it. Of course, that’s not what advertisers want us to believe. What’s more, she explained, we can cultivate a psychological immune system of sorts that will create contentment with the choices we make.
What Judy Ann, Michael Pollan, and my daughter all assert may not be a cure for pleniplessence. But could it be a remedy? To create our own filters for selection — only organic, made of natural fibers, vegan, contains no palm oil, my grandfather would recognize it, and even nah, I don’t need it. To be intentional in our choices, to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how amazing it is to have not only the things we need, but also the things we want — even if that sometimes does come with its own frustrations.
The sheer volume of what’s available to us isn’t likely to change. But, by making decisions based on our values — and by sometimes walking away empty-handed — we can, perhaps, keep pleniplessence at bay.