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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Treasure What You Have

written by Gavin Webber from The Greening of Gavin and Little Green Cheese.
"Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; 

but remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for"
-Epicurus, Greek Philosopher (341 BC - 270 BC)
I found this quote when stumbling through the web the other day, and it got me thinking. I remembered reading about a psychological effect that describes this quote to a tee. It is called the ‘DIDEROT EFFECT'.

Let me explain.  Have you ever purchased something, something you really wanted, only to discover that it made the rest of your stuff seem a bit old and dated?  Rather than accepting some variance in the style against your older possessions, have you then been tempted to upgrade your old and dated stuff? This is called the ‘Diderot Effect’, named after the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–84) who first described the effect in an essay titled "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown".  In this essay he describes how a gift of a brand new scarlet dressing gown leads to unexpected results, nearly making him bankrupt in the process.  

How do you become bankrupt just by receiving a gift of a new, sleek and beautiful scarlet dressing gown (aka smoking jacket).  Well the effect kind of tricks you like this.  Have you ever bought nice new shirt, and thought that your old pants now look shabby against it?  So you go and buy new pants to match, and shoes, and a handbag, and a belt, etc.  You get the picture.  The same can be said for putting a new piece of furniture into a room of existing pieces.  Soon you are shopping at the mall or high street to buy new furniture and fittings to make the original purchase look at home probably to the detriment of your bank account.

The same thing happened to Diderot or so he wrote.  He thought that his new robe looked so nice, that he thought that all the stuff in his apartment looked drab and ordinary against it.  So he bought lots and lots of new and expensive stuff to spruce up his abode, with a big hit on his financial accounts.  In the end he had this to say,
"I was absolute master of my old dressing gown, but I have become a slave to my new one … Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain.”
Between 2001 and 2006, I too was a victim to the Diderot Effect.  I would buy a new stereo system, only to think not long afterwards that I needed a new media player or DVD player to go with it.  The old one was in good working order so I was behaving irrationally.  When I bought a new computer, I would also upgrade the display, even though the one I had was perfectly okay.  Same goes with a lawn mower that I had, which just needed a little TLC, but I dumped it and bought a new one.  My old petrol (gas) can was old and rusty, but still functional, but I bought a new one, and threw the other away with the old mower.  Yes friends, I was wasteful as well.

These are just a few example of being sucked in by consumerism for consumerisms sake.  Today I would call it the 'steak knife effect' after all of those infomercials that start off flogging you one product, but then throw in a whole bunch of other stuff (that you never wanted anyway) just to justify the deal in your mind!

It has taken me a few years since my green epiphany, and a lot of thought after reading a book by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss titled "Affluenzza - When Too Much is Never Enough", but I am no longer influenced by this effect or most advertising for that matter.  I only replace what I need, when the old item is beyond repair, and only after I have gone without it for a few weeks to see if I can get by without it.  Case in point, my clothes dryer that broke a few months back.  You can read about how we adapted in the absence of this so called laundry necessisty on the post on my personal blog titled "Ditching the Clothes Dryer".  This is a classic example of rethinking and changing my behaviours for the better.

My warning to you all is beware the Diderot Effect and get off the consumerist treadmill which will help you stop the upward creep of material desire. Knowing how much is enough is a powerful skill to possess in this, the age of rampant consumerism.  Despite what advertisements tell us, stuff just doesn't satisfy our desire for meaning, and it is a very poor substitute for your sense of self worth within a manipulative and demeaning society.  I don't mean to sound preachy, but it feels to me that consumerism in western society is totally out of control for all the wrong reasons.

So to sum it all up, Treasure What You Have.  It will save your bank balance, and might just save a few resources in this ever declining, resource strapped, finite planet of ours.

Have you succumbed to this effect and regretted it later on?  How did it make you feel?

11 comments:

Jewels said...

Thank you for writing this post. My husband has been going to school for the last year and half to finish his PhD so we have money only for bills and food and I have to say, we truly appreciate all that we have. If I get bored with the way our home looks I just take a piece of furniture and paint it a different color from the supply of paint I already have or rearrange the furniture in the room. It is amazing what money you have in your bank account when you don't spend it and the creativity that comes from not having money to spend.

Angela said...

This post couldn't have been written at a better time. I really needed to hear this. Currently I am struggling with my desire/interest to update my wardrobe and also wanting to save money. Yesterday I bought two new pairs of semi-comfortable shoes and have bought a few other items. I do need to have a more professional wardrobe but I don't need to be broke either. I think I better evaluate what I have before spending any more money. In the long run living a simple life is way more rewarding. Thank you so much for this post!

Monique said...

I always loved junk mail. I would settle in with a cup of coffee and go through a massive stack of it, and at the end would have a list of things I "needed". A bit over a year ago I bought a house in a small town. I was so disappointed to find out that we don't get junk mail here! I missed it terribly at first. But I don't miss it now! I now only buy something if I actually need it. As in, I need it enough that I think about it often enough to put it on a shopping list and then start researching brands and prices etc. Not just "oh yes I could do with one of those, and look it's on special!" Now I'm not saying I haven't bought things this year. I have. I'm in the process of doing up an old and ugly house and turning it into something I like. I've bought a solar system, I've bought paint, I've bought couches, I've bought timber for garden beds, I've bought tools (but have also borrowed tools from my Dad rather than buying something for one job), I've bought a compost bin, I've bought clothes, I'm about to buy a worm farm. But 90% of what I've bought are items to take me closer to my goal of being self sustainable and will save me money in the long term. And it takes much less time to save for these things than it used to now that there are very few impulse purchases! I also plan ahead and do an online grocery shop every 4-6 weeks, instead of every week (I get paid monthly so it's just a case of being organised) which saves heaps on impulse buys. Those specials are so tempting!

I think the best investment anyone can make if they want to reduce their consumerism, is to buy a no junk mail sign for their letterbox. I wish I'd done it years ago.

Treasures Evermore said...

Love that quote...great post.

Anonymous said...

We all have fantasies of one kind or another, and fantasies can be described as unobtainable crazy desires. Advertisers like to create those fantasies with flashy advertisements on TV (for the latest BMW for example). The trouble is with our banking system and easily available credit, it is too easy to turn those fantasies into realities.

The moment we get what we desire (ie satisfy a fantasy) it is no longer a fantasy and we have to have another fantasy to replace the just-satisfied one. As humans it seems that to progress up the social evolutionary ladder we must have the objects of our desires perpetually just beyond reach in order to give us a motivation to improve ourselves. Unfortunately the advertisers and shopkeepers make it too easy to satisfy those desires/fantasies. It is hard to resist.

Jenn said...

I have to admit to a weakness for buying used books, but otherwise, I try to stick to the idea of treasuring what we have as much as possible. The truth is, we have a whole lot to treasure - health, food, and a roof over our head, plus a good many material goods.

I try not to buy much, and what I do buy is almost exclusively used, which I suspect cuts down on the Diderot effect at least a bit, since very little is ever truly shiny and new. Those things that are bought new? Well, those get very carefully considered not only for price, utility, and durability, but also for what kind of an impact they'll have on our lives overall.

Anonymous said...

i dont normally comment. But I want to say what a terrific post that was. Well done. Struck a cord with me as I was only this morning thinking about replacing my still functioning but out of fashion toaster.... which could as you say end up costing alot more than a toaster.

Anonymous said...

There be another reason people buy things they don't need? Loneliness! For a brief moment you have the interest, attention and maybe even a smile or fleeting conversation with another human - the shop assistant.

Aurora said...

Yes, I have succumbed to this before and now I resist it with all my might! Buying second hand helps immensely and cultivating an appreciation for 'wabi-sabi' aesthetics. Beware the brand new, shiny, matching coordinated ranges of anything and instead channel your energy into appreciating what you have and cultivating experiences. At least, I try to...

Great post Gavin!

Sol said...

Fantastic post. I admit I actually buy from boredom sometimes. and have a problem with magazines and shoes...

lately though all my efforts and purchases have been for our vegetable garden. I am hoping to make raised beds for my asparagus that has been growing in an old recycling bin. Now we have settled it deserves a bed and a home.

I prefer older furniture and dark wood so I am in heaven in a charity shop as no one wants it now adays.

Stacey Lynn said...

This is very true that the need for material objects will be endless. I had been trying to fill my feelings of emptiness with material objects believing that because I worked a job I wasn't happy with, I needed to buy, buy, buy. Being trapped in the mindless cycle of consumerism only kept me from truly being happy. I am slowly starting to live in a more simple way, one day at a time. It has been about a year since my "epiphany", but life has tremendously improved. Your blog has been very inspirational to me!