As defined by Merriam-Webster, consumerism is the idea that the consumption of goods is desirable. Stated differently, buying new things will make me happier. If only I had that new coat, car, kitchen appliance, toy, if only…if only… if only. Then, you get that desired object and are happy, but only for a short while. Eventually, the novelty wears off, and the question becomes, what can I buy next to make me feel happy again? The cycle begins again.
This phenomenon is not new, and in the mid to late 1700s, a French philosopher by the name of Denis Diderot experienced this firsthand. He recorded his journey from poor to rich, and back to poor again. Wait…back to poor? How did that happen? Consumerism?
Dennis Diderot was one of the leading minds during the Age of Enlightenment, and one might think he is immune to issues around simple decisions of whether I should buy this shiny new thing. Turns out even a brilliant human is still just a human. In his essay, “A Warning to Those Who Have More Taste Than Fortune,” he gives experience.
“I was an absolute master of my old robe; now, my new one is the master of me.[i]” Diderot had the good fortune during his life to acquire wealth after working with a royal figure of the time. And with this wealth, he decided to buy a new beautiful scarlet robe of the finest quality to replace his well-worn older robe. He marveled at its beauty and its increase in social status until he realized some key facts about his house, which still showed the signs of his recent poverty. There is no more coordination in his life. His old straw chair, his stained rug, the empty, dusty spaces in his house, and his worn desk were all disgustingly insufficient when illuminated by the radiant glory of his new scarlet robe. The plain objects of his home, which he never thought twice about, were suddenly not enough compared to his new robe’s rich elegance. And his home had to change.
In a short time, Diderot had spent every penny of his fortune and went deep in debt to pay for his “upgrades.” All because a new robe clashed with his older furnishings and possessions. And yet, after getting everything he ever wanted and more, he was miserable because he was no longer the master of his life. His money was.
For a fun video that shows this concept in a different way, check out this link. https://youtu.be/hUNxBSiV4ZY.