Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending

A Small Stream Lasts Longer

My mom came to the States in the ‘80’s from China. Raised during the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, she grew up with the simple doctrine of caring for her possessions. Her family lived by the axium “a small stream lasts longer” (“细水长流”): this dictated they use their resources thriftily, learn how to maintain them, and treat them with respect in order to extend their life and value. “It’s Chinese tradition to conserve, even if you have plenty,” my mom says. 

This attitude didn’t just apply to carefully hand-crafted items that were made to last, but also to basic objects with seemingly little worth. She and her family would cherish what they owned, integrating it into their systems of living so it became indispensable. As a result, they needed and yearned for much less. 

My mom still treats her possessions this way, never tiring of her materials, which each fulfill their distinct purpose.

Superfluous Spending and the Economy

We are conditioned now to bring more into our homes and dispose of it quickly. Next to newer models and competing brands, once-exciting products grow stale to us within just a few years.

Most Americans would agree on the counterproductiveness of needless spending, while admitting to doing so quite regularly—it is something we are all guilty of in our pursuit of pleasure. Many of us rationalize this spending as a necessary evil for a strong economy; in reality this could not be further from the truth. 

The short-term economic gains associated with highly robust consumer activity actually impair long-term economic stability: by depleting our natural resources, we are damaging future economic systems that rely on the wellbeing of our environment, including our agricultural food system. 

Nothing could be worse for both the sustainability of our environment and our economy than uninhibited consumption. “The economic outlook of individuals, governments, and businesses alike, tends to be dangerously shortsighted,” writes Crissy Trask, author of It’s Easy Being Green. In the meantime, “vegetation, soil, fisheries, water, metals, fuels—without exception—are all being rapidly depleted.” 

Any business that doesn’t partake in sustainable practices and moderate resource-use, says Trask, “is a liability to the environment, the public, and the economy.” When you shop, aim to support environmentally-conscious brands and products that are built to endure.  

Buy Green, But in Moderation. 

Our call for eco-friendly products has given rise to a flourishing market of green goods, one of the fastest-growing global industries today. We have ourselves to congratulate! 

However, remember not to go crazy with these purchases either. Our efforts are made redundant if we buy every eco-friendly product out there, many with unnecessary niche applications. 

Those metal straws that have made their way into most eco-friendly utensil sets? Though definitely better than plastic, they also require resources to produce and distribute. The best alternative (unless you are very young, very old, or have a condition that makes drinking from a cup difficult) is to stop using straws altogether. If we reduce our reliance on material microprivilages that cost us almost nothing to kick the habit of, we can do a lot of good. 

We Are Attracted to Novelty, Not Materials

Many believe our excessive consumptive behaviors are a right that comes with living in a democratic and capitalist society—that enjoying life without limitation is what we work so hard to earn money for.

This conception that material possessions make us happy is now being challenged in many different ways. Mindfulness, gifting experiences instead of possessions, and the minimalist movement are all modern reactions to the raging consumerism that since the ‘20’s has gripped America and the world. There have been countless studies on whether materials are the key to happiness, and the overwhelming conclusion is that they are not the answer.

Humans have evolved a taste for novelty—a mechanism that helps us learn and adapt. Our brains react to novelty by releasing dopamine both when presented with a novel stimulus, and in anticipation of it.

When our brains exist in a world where novelty is everywhere (mass production, technological advances, cultural trends) in high concentration (cities, grocery stores, shopping malls), instantaneous (the internet), and unnaturally pleasurable (hyperpalatable processed foods), it’s no surprise that addictions exist and over-consumption is a common catharsis. 

Neurobiologists Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Düzel have found in studies about novelty, that “when we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way.” So we associate new things with pleasure. That is, until that thing becomes old and our attention drifts to something with more potential reward. “Novelty [is] a motivating bonus to explore an environment in the search for reward rather than being a reward itself,” say Bunzeck and Düzel. So perhaps what you’re looking for is not the third generation electric kettle, but the reminder that there’s more out there—inspiring you to upgrade your life and yourself. 

“With the Catching Ends the Pleasure of the Chase.” —Abe Lincoln

Lend me your imagination for a moment. 

Say you find some justification for purchasing a new commuter bike: you’ve had yours for a couple years and there are lighter models out there that could shave off a few minutes of your commute. You peruse the internet and local bike shops, just poking around at first, allowing yourself to imagine alternate realities of your ride to work. It’s fun, even inspiring to entertain your desires in this harmless way. 

But then you stumble upon a model that not only fulfills your exact wants, but is absolutely gorgeous! It’s teched-out, a level of quality befitting a true athlete. Your excitement crescendos: could you imagine yourself riding it to work, adopting this kind of cool into your life? Couldn’t you be an athlete, and wouldn’t this motivate you to work harder at becoming one?

It’s a bold purchase, maybe a little reckless—there are other priorities that could benefit from this money. But that bold commitment is exactly what thrills you. You’re about to make a decision to invest a chunk of change into a luxurious pleasure, putting yourself first, and prioritizing this want. You’re making a small and spontaneous dream a reality. It’s self-care, really.  

The thrill of diving in and grabbing life by the handlebars is intoxicating. When we are stirred to throw caution to the wind and live bigger and brighter, we feel revitalized. We’re all familiar with this feeling, as well as the liquid ease of experiencing a brand new piece of equipment—but we’re also familiar with how short that window of pleasure lasts, and how quickly we move away from our purchase’s regular use.

To extend this window, we often fall prey to the Diderot Effect—a manifestation named after a 16th Century French philosopher, who, triggered by a single extravagant purchase that derailed the balance of his entire amassed possessions, fell into a helpless spiral of material dissatisfaction. With new purchases, we sometimes find a sudden need to repair uniformity by solidifying the aesthetic of that item with additional coordinated purchases. In the case of your bike, you’ll need a water bottle holder, a sleeker helmet, newer reflectors, brighter lights, panniers, aerodynamic clothing, maybe even a larger phone for optimal GPS navigation. 

The drive to research, justify, and commit ourselves to each additional purchase is born in our chase for pleasure. Chasing material novelties not only fills us with dopamine, but gives us motivation and focus—the exact mindset that comes with reducing our reliance on material objects, as many minimalists attest to. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, write that “minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” Not buying sounds pretty dopamine-filled to me. 

But you don’t need to become a minimalist to find some freedom from material burden. Consider how even small steps toward pairing down and streamlining your purchases can give you room to breathe. In the case of this bike, its extravagant tech is monetarily and environmentally costly, but also unnecessary: you now own a piece of equipment that you must maintain and protect, but that you can’t fully exploit—and you own the guilt associated with its underuse. Strive for what’s best for you, not the best that’s out there. 

Choice-Induced FOMO 

There are few things in life that deliver such instant gratification as shopping does, both through the chase and the reward. The ones I can name are all highly addicting (like shopping can be): social media, video games, food, alcohol, opioids. The other achievements we strive toward are either not guaranteed, or require considerable effort to attain—love, popularity, a respected job, economic stability, etc. Smaller wins, like growing a garden, painting a picture, or perfecting a loaf of sourdough still require time, effort, and mental bandwidth, so for obvious reasons we resort to the easy pleasures of buying. When the ease of buying abbreviates our anticipation to a fleeting day or hour, we move on to the next product. 

Yet another advent of modern retail perpetuates this cycle: overwhelming choice. How many times have you entered a grocery store on the hunt for a specific brand of jam, only to be led off track by the dozens of other options in front of you? Abundant choice leads us to second-guess our decisions, even if our decision was ultimately the best we could have made.  

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, writes,“What we don’t realize is that the very option of being allowed to change our minds seems to increase the chances that we will change our minds.” This wavering commitment of course impacts our experience of the product, leading us to tire of it quickly in search of greener pastures. This cycle is not only costly in many regards, but keeps us relentlessly unsatisfied. 

Our curiosity and desire to maximize our experiences propels us to want to experiment and test things out. Unfortunately our retail models aren’t commonly optimised for taste-testing, contributing to high rates of consumption and disposal. I’ve been guilty countless times of failing to make a decision and lavishly doubling up on several versions of an item. Our perpetual “fear of missing out” (FOMO), and the energy it takes to make a decision amid the distraction of so much choice, keeps us chasing the untapped potential of the items we left on the shelf.

So How Do We Buy Less? 

We can combat this addicting cycle of short-lived, high-definition pleasure and inevitable dissatisfaction by being aware that… 

  1. we navigate a modern world with an ancient brain. Our instincts tell us to want more. 
  • Action: support green brands in moderation and remember that future economies will thank you for your modest spending. Buy the best thing for you, not the best that’s out there. 
  1. we thirst for novelty, not materials. Saturation and convenience leads us toward material goods.
  • Action: look for novelty in the form of experiences, and remind yourself of the tenuous rewards of buying before you make a purchase.
  1. the chase is more pleasurable than the result
  • Action: prolong the chase and aim for meaningful results by recalibrating your goals toward non-material pursuits. Consciously take on projects with the understanding that the journey is as valuable as, if not more than, the result. Note: remind yourself that because our brains have been trained by modern instant gratifications to wander quickly and balk at areas of resistance, you might experience discouragement at lower thresholds, when extending the chase over longer periods of time. Persevere through small frictions, as they’re a natural part of any process and will lend to a more rewarding experience.  
  1. waffling is a product of FOMO. When you purchase, be aware that the doubt and diminished satisfaction you may feel is likely a psychological reaction to choice. 
  • Action: commit to your decision. Schwartz says, “knowing that you’ve made a choice that you will not reverse allows you to pour your energy into improving the relationship that you have rather than constantly second-guessing it.” Rather than using comparison to evaluate your item, consider that item independently of others. Once confident that your decision was made thoughtfully, adopt it into your home with welcome arms. Remind yourself that your choice may very well have been the best choice, even if your opinion of it is swayed by the temptation of what you have not experienced.   

Though rationalizing ourselves out of instinctual behaviors can feel like an uphill battle, we can reduce the strain by minimizing our exposure to the competitive world of material objects. Instead, look for greater pleasure from activities and projects, while consciously narrowing your focus to perfecting, maintaining, and finding beauty in what you have. Like my mom, treat your possessions with compassion. 

Related:

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

Progress Over Perfection: Finding Balance as a Conscious Consumer

Shopping Addiction: Purge Your Urge to Splurge

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

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