Back in the 1700s there was a well-known (at the time) French philosopher named Denis Diderot. He didn’t have tons of money, but he was respected for creating a pretty extensive encyclopedia.
One day a rich friend gave him a beautiful dressing gown (true fact: even back in the day writers liked being comfy) to replace his tattered old gown he had as his daily writing uniform. While the new gown was awesome, it created a downward spiral for him.
At first it was small things that changed. He noticed how old his chair was, in contrast to the luxurious new gown, so he replaced it. Then he realized how much his old desk didn’t match the new chair. Then it was the carpet under the desk, then the wall-hangings in his office, and so on and so on.
Thus a “consumption spiral” was created. Not because he was greedy, but because his space wasn’t Pinterest-worthy due to non-matching vibes. The story goes that he kept upgrading his belonging to match until he was totally in debt, and completely unhappy with his life. And if Pinterest and digital cameras had existed, he would have been unhappy and still pinning the crap out of his new home furnishings.
This can also happen when we start to make more money. We tell ourselves we deserve nicer things because we’ve earned them. We need to act and look like the type of people that do well. Especially on our social media feeds! I can’t Instagram my $3 flip-flops getting out of my fancy car, I won’t get 1,000 likes!
(A super weird aside, but I do so much research that I came across a pair of flip-flops from 1550–1307 BC Egypt!)
Unless we opt out of all of this entirely.
Regardless of how much we make (or don’t make) – if we let go of the misguided belief that buying things or wanting things will make us happier. Because all it’ll do is make us want more things. In fact, in hindsight, I’m happier when I don’t spend money because that money goes into long-term investments and then I feel less stressed because I’m building savings that’ll then build compound interest.
We also need to drop the idea that we’ll be happier if only we made more money.
A recent study (newer than Egyptian flip-flops and 18th century French philosophers) found that more money doesn’t lead to more happiness. In fact, once one earns “enough” money from their salary, happiness doesn’t even increase as salary does. Thankfully, we get to define our own “enough” as well. Sure, maybe money can buy some happiness, but only up to a point—like covering your basic needs to make sure there’s a roof over your head. I’m definitely happier having a roof over my head than not. But would I be happier if that roof was attached to a house with 3,000 extra square feet? Probably not. Probably even less so if I thought about how much time or money would be spent on cleaning something that huge. And, I’d be even more stressed every time I thought about my mortgage payments and exactly how much I owed the bank.
This is why I look up to folks like Terry Pratchett. Not only is his writing ridiculously smart and hilarious (his 41 novels in the DiscWorld series are also a testament to his work ethic). I like how Pratchett operated because up until he died his life never changed when his income did. He kept living in the same house he bought before he was loaded. He never got that fancy new car (he drove an old Volvo) or spiralled by buying a stylish robe (although he did always wear a stylish full-brimmed black hat). He sold over 85-million books and he didn’t change the way he lived in any real way since his first book sale.
He believed in what he called horizontal wealth, which he talked about in his non-fiction book, A Slip of the Keyboard.
“I’ve made a lot of money writing. A considerable amount. But I am horizontally wealthy, which is the way to go. If you are vertically wealthy, you think ‘I am rich, so I had better do what rich people do.’ What do rich people do? Well, they find out where the hell Gstaad is, and then they go skiing there. They buy a yacht…”
Being vertically wealthy means we keep up with other vertically wealthy people in a war of attrition on better and better consumer goods. It means we upgrade our lives to match our fancy-ass robes. It means if we get a new car, we also have to ditch our $3 flip-flops.
The vertically wealthy end up being owned by the stuff they acquire. Horizontally wealthy folks end up owning only their riches. It doesn’t mean they don’t ever spend money, but they do it thoughtfully, and in ways that will enrich their lives.
How do I personally get over the desire when I find myself lusting after new robes? (Ok, that’s never happened, BUT IT COULD.)
First, I try to question whether or not I need it and more importantly, what the true cost will be—including maintenance, insurance, and the impact it’ll have on stuff I already have. I also try to fit new things into existing systems, like if I need a new pair of shoes – and I only ever have 2 pair of shoes at a time (not including my $3 flip-flops) – the new pair has to match all my clothes. I also like to impose constraints, like not buying new things for 6 months, or giving myself a specific budget I can’t go over, even if I technically have the money to buy it. I also unsubscribed from all newsletters and YouTube channels that talk about fancy new cars. (Sorry Head 2 Head! But I don’t even feel bad, Jason Cammisa’s gone anyway…)
I’d rather be happy with what I’ve got than think I’ll only be happy when I buy what I desire. Think about it: it feels better to be happy presently than hopefully happy later.
I don’t want to ever end up like Diderot—and my non-figurative old and tattered bathrobe won’t be replaced until it’s a collection of threads on the floor beside my $3 flip-flops.
I’ll end with another quote from Pratchett (from Men at Arms: The Play):
“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.”