The desire to acquire: Why the novelty of buying new things soon wears off

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You may have wanted it for a long time. You probably saved up for it. You may, in fact, need it. It might even feel exciting to have it in your life. Its all you’ve thought about for a significant amount of time.

This could be a car, newly-released technology, some hobby equipment, a piece of jewellery, or even just a lovely pen. Whatever it is, if you felt the desire to acquire, it must have been important to you.

But then, soon after, your brain stops being excited by it. You barely notice it any more. Even if you use it every day, you won’t feel the surge of excitement you experienced when you first used it/played with it/wore it/drove it.

The research of behavioural economist Tom Gilovich from Cornell University is discussed in Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries; ‘His research found (over and over again) that people get more lasting joy from experiences than from objects.’ (Kaplan 2016, p. 95)

Our brain neurons and nerve cells are on the lookout for new stimuli at all times. It’s a protective thing – to keep us safe. In fact, I discussed this in my blog post ‘You are an antelope: why evolution causes us to be stressed by clutter’.

On the other hand, when the same neurons already recognise something, there no need for you to be stimulated by it. If it’s been in your life for a while, it’s unlikely to be a threat, so your brain can skip past it without worry.

This explains why the novelty wears off when we acquire something new. Your brain gets used to having it around. It’s no threat to you so it needs no special attention. Thanks neurons, your work here is done.

So, if that thing you want so badly now will soon become white noise in your life, do you really need it? Can you do without it? Could it be one less thing in your home and more money saved in your account?

The moment we want is the moment we are dissatisfied.

Haig, M (2019) pg. 230

In Notes on a Nervous Planet, Matt Haig suggests that we should be wary of our ‘wants’, as too many wants can cause us to feel unhappy. It is this dissatisfaction with ‘our lot’ that drives the economy: it’s good for business for us to desire something because then we’ll spend money trying to acquire it. And the marketers have done their job.

Even if we’ve just bought something that we thought we really needed, it won’t be long before the next ‘want’ creeps in. Beware the want.

The Minimalists suggest a rule for making purchases – the 30/30 rule. If something costs more than $30, wait 30 hours before you buy it. That gives you a chance to walk away. To ruminate on it. Maybe you’ll even forget about it. And if you still need to buy it after 30 hours, you are welcome to purchase it.

They take it one step further by waiting 30 days before making purchases that cost over $100. If you’ve waited that long and still want it, you can confidently bring it into your home knowing that it’s a something you truly want or need. Just don’t expect to feel any kind of excitement about it after a period of time.

You may not even notice it after 30 days of owning it.

Let me know if you’ve experienced the novelty wearing off in the comments below – what did you really want that now holds little interest?

Haig, M (2019) Notes On A Nervous Planet. 2nd Edition. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books

Kaplan, J. (2016) The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on The Bright Side Transformed My Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

Millburn, J. F. The 30/30 Rule. [online] [25th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.theminimalists.com/3030rule/