Buying your way to happiness?

Blogging with Rubens
Blogging with Rubens

Apologies for the silence of late. This is certainly not on account of having nothing to write about – far from it, since I seem to be stockpiling articles that I’ve earmarked for review – but rather due to the distractions offered by plentiful amounts of running (with the start of the cross country season), reading (since my holiday I’ve got back into the habit of consuming books much in the way that I consume cups of tea), and the return of my kitty Rubens.

However, an article I tore out of The Guardian a week or so ago has been sitting on my kitchen table, looking at me rather expectantly for a while now, and since the corners are starting to look rather worn and it’s had more than a spot of tea spilt on it, with Rubens on my knee I’ve resolved to get writing again.

The article, by Oliver Burkeman, looks at the so-called ‘Diderot effect’. Originating from Diderot’s 1769 essay ‘Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown’ (with the rather telling subtitle ‘or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune’), this describes the phenomenon whereby you buy something new and then this new item makes your other possessions look time-worn by comparison. The result is that you end up feeling the need to replace everything else surrounding that new object, whether you have the financial means to do so or not (something which I find myself guilty of a lot of the time).

Diderot’s essay (which you can read in full here), centres on his new, luxurious robe, which sits at odds with all of his other belongings:

‘My old robe was one with the other rags that surrounded me. A straw chair, a wooden table, a rug from Bergamo, a wood plank that held up a few books, a few smoky prints without frames, hung by its corners on that tapestry. Between these prints three or four suspended plasters formed, along with my old robe, the most harmonious indigence.

All is now discordant. No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.’

It is this dis-harmony between the new and old objects that is problematic for Diderot; an inconsistency of ones possessions, which causes mixed messages about their owner.

As Burkeman observes:

‘We use possessions to help construct our identities and we need these identities to be consistent. A consistently shabbily dressed person might be signalling that her mind is on higher matters; a consistently smart one that she values good taste. But someone who’s a random mixture of both just seems weird.’

Anthropologist Grant McCracken notes that this consistency is so subconsciously important to us that products are marketed as ‘Diderot unities’ – groups whereby once you’ve purchased one you feel that you need the others.

The Diderot effect works because we invest possessions with symbolic power – we want possessions that say something about the person we are or at least about the person we want to be. And once we have one item in the ‘set’ of that aspired to person, we want the rest. You know the juicer and the Lululemon leggings you needed to buy not long after you bought that new yoga mat? Or the running spikes and gel belt that you had to have just after you bought that new wind-proof top? That is what we are talking about here.

The economist Juliet Schor sums this up quite perfectly:

 ‘If there’s something you really want but don’t actually need, there’s a good chance that a recurring symbolic fantasy is attached to it. A faster computer? The dream of getting more work done. A remodelled kitchen? The hope of eating proper family dinners…Laying bare the fantasy illuminates the often tenuous link between the product and the dream.’

As anyone who knows me will attest, I often get lost in the idea, or dream, of a lifestyle or event, triggered by the smallest of things from a new water bottle to a pair of climbing boots. My mind creates the lifestyle surrounding each object and to solidify the vision I find myself buying all of the tropes associated with that aspiration.

Burkemen started his article with the note that ‘sometimes it’s nice to learn that a psychological phenomenon has a name, if only so I no longer have to think of it as Me Being Uniquely Irrational And Self Defeating’ and I will finish mine by saying much the same, but acknowledging that maybe I should try to hold back from buying the vision and instead try to live it.

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