The Diderot Effect and You

denis diderot quote

In 1769, Denis Diderot published an essay entitled Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune. In it, Diderot laments the loss of his old dressing gown, which he wore around the house for casual clothing:

Why didn’t I keep it? It was used to me and I was used to it. It molded all the folds of my body without inhibiting it; I was picturesque and handsome. The other one is stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy. There was no need to which its kindness didn’t loan itself, for indigence is almost always officious. If a book was covered in dust, one of its panels was there to wipe it off. If thickened ink refused to flow in my quill, it presented its flank. Traced in long black lines, one could see the services it had rendered me. These long lines announce the litterateur, the writer, the man who works. I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am.

It was an inexpensive old dressing gown, not too different than a shabby old t-shirt we might wear around the house on weekends. It was comfortable to wear and had many uses.

So, why didn’t he still have it and wear it around the house?

I don’t cry, I don’t sigh, but every moment I say: Cursed be he who invented the art of putting a price on common material by tinting it scarlet. Cursed be the precious garment that I revere. Where is my old, my humble, my comfortable rag of common cloth?

In other words, Diderot had replaced his older comfortable and reliable clothing with a new one, a red one that wasn’t as comfortable or utilitarian as his old one. It was apparently expensive, too.

Diderot had been living a pretty impoverished life until recently, when he came into a healthy bit of money. It turns out that Diderot was a writer of some renown in 18th century France, but he wasn’t a very wealthy man and often lived on the edge of poverty. He became well known for writing a popular encyclopedia, but the proceeds from that really didn’t bring him much wealth. He was somewhat famous for his writing, but was basically destitute.

Catherine the Great, the empress of Russia at the time, heard about Diderot’s plight and decided to help. From Wikipedia:

When the Russian Empress Catherine the Great heard that Diderot was in need of money she arranged for the purchase of Diderot’s library and for the appointment of Diderot as the caretaker of this library till his death — at an annual retainer of one thousand livres. Moreover, she paid him twenty five years of his salary in advance.

He went from destitute to moderately wealthy overnight. He wasn’t rich, but for a modern comparison he went from impoverished to what you might call upper middle class in the blink of an eye.

With that money, he replaced his old house clothes with new ones. He made some other material “upgrades,” too:

I saw the Bergamo cede the wall to which it had so long been attached to the damascene hanging.

Two prints not without merit: The Chute de la Manne dans le Desert by Poussin and Esther devant Assuerus of the same painter; the one shamefully chased away by an old man by Rubens was the sad Esther; The falling manna was dissipated by a Tempest by Vernet.

The straw chair was relegated to the antechamber by a leather chair.

Homer, Virgil, Horace,and Cicero relieved the weak fir bending under their mass and have been closed in in an inlaid armoire, an asylum more worthy of them than of me.

A large mirror took over the mantle of my fireplace.

Those two lovely molds that I owed to Falconet’s friendship, and which he repaired himself, were moved away by a crouching Venus. Modern clay broken by antique bronze.

The wooden table was still fighting in the field, sheltered by a mass of pamphlets and papers piled up any which way, and which it appeared would protect it from the injuries that threatened it. One day it met its destiny, and despite my laziness the pamphlets and papers put themselves away in a precious bureau.

The space that remained between the tablet of this desk and the Tempest by Vernet, which is above it, made for a void disagreeable to the eye. This void was filled by a clock. And what a clock! A clock a la geoffrin; a clock whose the gold contrasts with the bronze.

There was a vacant corner next to my window. This corner asked for a writing desk, which it obtained.

Another unpleasant void between the tablet of the writing desk and the lovely head by Rubens was filled by two La Grenées.

Here is a Magdeleine by the same artist; there is a sketch either by Vien or Machy, for I also went in for sketches.

He replaced his old wall decorations with new ones, then realized he didn’t like the new ones nearly as much. He bought a new leather chair when the straw one was still quite functional. He bought an armoire that hid away all of his old favorite books. He bought a dresser, too, to stow away a lot of his papers that were doing just fine on an ordinary table. He bought a new writing desk just to fill empty space, as well as more decorations to fill other unused spaces around his home.

How did this make him feel?

My friends, keep your old friends. My friends, fear the touch of wealth. Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.

In short, he bought a lot of possessions he didn’t really need and he regretted doing so, not just because of the money spent, but because his old items did their job well and in a familiar and joyful fashion. Now, his home is filled with possessions that he’s no longer connected to in any way. It’s not his home any more – it’s just a house filled with unfamiliar stuff, and now he’s less happy than before because his new possessions are rather meaningless compared to his old ones.

I first heard of the Diderot effect in Juliet Schor’s excellent book The Overspent American, where she discusses the tendency for many people to engage in overconsumption driven by a sense of dissatisfaction with their current possessions, only to never be satisfied with what they have. They buy items in order to seek out a certain contentment, but that contentment never comes, so they buy some more.

Fighting the Diderot Effect

I’m pretty sure almost all of us can find something familiar in Diderot’s words. All of us have, at one time or another, felt one of our possessions was cheap and shabby next to another, then sought to replace that shabby item only to find that the replacement brought us no joy whatsoever and sometimes even brought us unhappiness and inconvenience.

Yet we’ll often find ourselves buying something new again, replacing an item we already have or covering a newly-perceived need that may or may not exist. Often, that perceived need is in comparison to the new stuff we now have, making the older stuff look old and shabby in comparison.

That’s the “Diderot effect” so clearly described in Denis Diderot’s essay. When we have a bit of extra money, we look around our lives and see things that should be improved. We see things that we should buy. We spend. And then we find those things weren’t as great as we thought they would be. They usually don’t make things better. They just leave us feeling empty and wanting.

Here are some strategies I use to keep that effect at bay.

Strategy #1 – Add to Your Current Life Strategies; Don’t Invent New Ones or Completely Restart from Scratch

When your life undergoes a sudden change in some way, it’s often tempting to just completely alter tried and true strategies in your life because of the presence of a new source of income or the presence of some money in the bank. That’s usually a mistake, as you often have resources on hand that fit the bill for what you need.

Let’s say you get a new job and the wardrobe expected there is a bit better than the clothes you currently have. Instead of rushing out to the clothing store to buy a bunch of new clothes, assess what you have first. Choose items from your current wardrobe that would work well in your new professional environment. Then, assess from those things whether you need more items and then just replace those items as they wear out.

Another example: don’t refurnish an entire room just because one piece of furniture is worn out. Instead, choose a replacement for that one piece that matches well with what you have.

When you perceive a new need in your life, check and make sure that you’re not already filling it at least partially. If you are, look instead to only add to what you have.

Strategy #2 – Don’t Replace Items Until They Actually Need Replacing

It can sometimes be tempting to look at the possessions you have and think of them as “used” or “old” or “shabby.” Those traits are often seen as a negative, when they should actually be seen as a positive.

If an item is well used, that means that it has fulfilled a purpose very well in someone’s life. That item works. It does what it’s supposed to do. You know exactly how it operates. Why on earth would you replace that item before it completely fails?

I find items that aren’t brand new but look like they’ve never been used to be much more suspect, to tell the truth. That means that you bought an item believing for some reason that you’d need it, but then it turned out that you haven’t used it much at all. Those items, in my eyes, are prime targets for selling off.

The only sure sign that an item needs replacing is that it no longer provides the function that you need. If you find that it’s looking worn and that bothers you, look to repair the item rather than just replacing it. After all, the item has served you well over many uses, so it must be incredibly functional. Why would you toss it?

Strategy #3 – Live a Mindful and Carefully Considered Life

One of the biggest tools that you can add to your repertoire for a better life is to simply be more mindful about the individual things you choose to do, and spend time considering those choices when you’re not in the heat of the moment.

I often recommend this strategy for a lot of different personal finance problems. Why? Because it works so well for slowly improving your natural decision making over time, no matter what the subject.

Want a clear cut example? Whenever you find yourself wanting something, spend some time thinking about why you want it. Then, think about why you feel that way about your answers to that first question. Then repeat those whys a few times until it starts to get really hard. What you’re going to eventually find is that your desire to purchase that item is often connected to something seemingly unrelated, usually stress or a feeling you have about yourself, and when you ask yourself whether that purchase will fix that problem, the answer is almost always no.

Another great strategy for building consideration and mindfulness into your life is to start practicing the ten second rule. Whenever you are about to purchase something, hold it in your hands for ten seconds and ask yourself whether you honestly need this item. Could you borrow it from somewhere else and get the use you need out of it? Could you find it for a lower price elsewhere? Will you actually use it? Approach those questions honestly and you’ll often find yourself putting the item back on the shelf.

Once you get into a routine of carefully considering your actions and being mindful about what you’re doing in terms of purchasing, that mindfulness often spreads to other parts of your life. It can be rather life-changing.

Strategy #4 – Don’t Inflate Your Lifestyle When New Income Arrives

Whenever you receive some unexpected income or experience an increase in your regular income, it can be extremely tempting to go back and say “yes” to things that you once said “no” to. You can afford it now, after all. Right?

The problem here is that once you inflate your lifestyle in one area, you run smack into the Diderot effect. Other aspects of your life begin to look shabby in comparison, so you see the need to upgrade them, too. Your insurance bill starts to climb, as does your rent/mortgage, as does your car payment. And soon you’re right back where you started, in a financial holding pattern. You’re surrounded by more stuff, but it doesn’t bring you any additional joy. You just have a more stressful job than before.

Instead of taking that approach, be smart when new income arrives. If it’s a one-time burst of income, use it to permanently improve your financial state by paying off a debt or making a big contribution to a Roth IRA. If it’s a permanent increase in income, ratchet up your 401(k) contributions accordingly or start automatically making extra mortgage payments to devour that extra pay so that you never see it.

If you make those kinds of choices, you don’t really have the option to unconsciously inflate your lifestyle. You’ll be bringing home the same amount of money as you always did, so there really isn’t an option to start upgrading your stuff.

Not only that, this approach will go a long way toward guaranteeing a good financial future for yourself. Doing this means that you’re channeling that income into things that will ensure more financial stability down the road in the form of debt freedom or retirement savings.

Strategy #5 – View the Things You Own on Their Individual Merits

Sometimes, you’ll look around a room and notice that one or two things are really nice and the rest of the items are older. The older items are still in fine shape, but compared to the brand new items, they look somehow … older than you would expect.

That kind of perspective can make it very tempting to just replace the older items in a room, to make the whole thing look fresh and new.

Don’t give into that temptation.

Instead of looking around the room, look instead at each item in the room. Would you replace this item on its own? If it’s a piece of furniture, you probably wouldn’t do so unless it was truly worn out.

Look at items individually before deciding whether to keep them or toss them. Don’t worry about what else is around them. Judge items on their individual merit rather than looking at a collection of things and judging everything based on the outlier.

Strategy #6 – Avoid Things That Encourage Negative Feelings About What You Already Have, As Well As Desirous Feelings About What You Don’t Have

Much of modern culture, from the internet to print media, from television to radio, is full of messages that make you want to desire things you don’t already have. Often paired along with that message is a sense that what you already have is inadequate and represents you in a poor fashion.

Think about your typical video advertisement, often seen in front of Youtube videos, on television, or in front of a theatrical film. Often, these videos present glowing views of products, making them seem as though they will be life-changing. Beautiful people have them. Productive people have them. People with traits you wish you had have these products.

It’s all a lie, of course, but it’s an effective one at tricking your mind.

Television is a great example of the type of thing I’m talking about here. Whenever I watch television, I find that it’s not just the commercials that make me desire things, but it’s often in the programming, too. This is particularly true on “news” channels, where the “news” is often just a barely-disguised advertisement for a new product.

I simply try to avoid information with commercials and information from sources I don’t trust as much as I can. If I do see an advertisement, I assume it’s presenting false information and ignore it. If I do see a “news” report about a “great” product, I react similarly.

Strategy #7 – Focus on the Non-Material Things You Have in Your Life

Diderot’s essay ends on a better note:

With time all debts will be paid, remorse will be calmed and I will have pure joy. Don’t fear that the mad desire to stock up beautiful things has taken control of me. The friends I had I sill have, and their number hasn’t grown. I have Lais but Lais doesn’t have me. Happy in her arms, I am ready to cede her to she who I’ll love and who she’ll make happier than me. And I want to tell you a secret: that Lais, who it cost others so much to buy, cost me nothing.

Instead of collecting prints and paintings on your walls, collect friends.

Instead of upgrading a room with a ton of new furniture, upgrade your social network.

Instead of buying a bunch of new items for your hobby, actually participate in that hobby for a full day.

Your life is full of relationships and interests and projects and experiences to tap into. Don’t spend your money acquiring and accumulating more stuff to fill up your house with. Spend your money – if you are going to spend it – on pure experiences or on building skills. Upgrade yourself, your relationships, your life.

Final Thoughts

Denis Diderot’s essay, written just shy of 250 years ago, shows the timelessness of some of the true challenges of personal finance. He faced the challenge of lifestyle inflation even in those times, predating even the birth of America. He saw his newfound wealth, looked around his life, and suddenly saw many avenues for spending… but he found that the spending brought him no lasting joy and, if anything, brought him sadness.

If I have learned anything from Diderot’s essay, it’s that I must strive to be happy with the things that I have rather than focusing on a desire for more and better things. I have more things in my life to draw my attention and passion than I can possibly count, more than I possibly have time for.

So why would I need more?

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