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There has never been more stuff to buy, and yet we as consumers only want one thing: the best. The best couch. The best sneakers. The best toothbrush. The best T-shirt.

We are desperately in search of the best of everything, and everyone knows it. Venture capital firms know it, giving unproven startups millions of dollars to try to make the best products. Brands know it, marketing their wares as the best whatever, which will in turn make us be our best selves so we can live our best lives. The media knows it, launching recommendation site after recommendation site to inform us what is best when we’re overwhelmed by choice.

What’s to blame for our ever-increasing fervor for the best? Perhaps the Great Recession, which left millennials (and Gen-Xers, and boomers too) with less wealth; we don’t have as much money to spend, and so we want our purchases to count. The Recession also ushered in an era of minimalism in which people like Marie Kondo turned owning fewer things into a virtue. If we have fewer things, shouldn’t those things be the best?

But the word “best” is a linguistic quirk, the result of our tendency toward hyperbole. In nearly all cases, but especially when we’re talking about what we buy, the best is necessarily subjective. There is no actual way to determine the best mattress, or the best face cream, or the best socks. Even if we understand that “best” is really just a stand-in for “good” — there can be good mattresses, and good face creams, and good socks — we still want to believe we can get to the objective best with our next purchase.

To examine the quest for the best, we went inside the futile race to make the best razor and investigated how a brand purporting to make the best luggage can fail. We had senior citizens share the best products they’ve found in the past many decades. We asked a psychologist why we can’t ever arrive at the best, and interrogated how online reviews and all those recommendation sites figure into the “best” economy. We observed how the journey to a personal best can mean so much. We even tried all the best, well, everything, to tell you how it made us feel.

We think all these stories are very good (but promise not to call them the best). Enjoy.

—Julia Rubin, editor of The Goods


CREDITS

Editors: Julia Rubin, Meredith Haggerty, Alanna Okun, Eleanor Barkhorn

Copy editors: Tanya Pai, Tim Williams, Bridgett Henwood

Project manager: Susannah Locke

Illustrations: Shanée Benjamin

Engagement: Nisha Chittal, Lexie Schapitl, Diana Elbasha