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/

You are an antelope: Why evolution causes us to be stressed by clutter

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You’re an antelope. You’re scanning the horizon. You’re on the look out for lions. You can’t quite see what’s beyond the trees. Did that bush just rustle? Your breath quickens. You’re ready to run at any moment. Your system is flooded with adrenaline. It’s fight or flight time.

That’s what it’s like to live in a cluttered home.

Okay, okay, maybe comparing people with messy homes to anetlopes in mortal danger of being hunted by lions is too abstract. But it’s essentially the same kind of effect; if you’re stressed out by clutter, it’s because you are programmed by nature to be stressed out by clutter.

Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.

Bourg Carter, S. (2012)

Our ancestors actually DID have the same kind of experience as an antelope. They WERE in danger from predators and they WOULD have to scan the horizon to keep themselves safe.

And it’s this tendancy to scan for danger that causes us stress in the modern era. Not being able to see the horizon beyond the clutter feels dangerous to our cave-person minds. Instinctively, this causes us to feel stressed when we’re confronted with too much stuff at once.

Some people aren’t affected by clutter in this way. Maybe they’re better adapted to modern living. Yes, maybe they’re more evolved than I am. But there’s no doubt in my mind about the stress levels I personally feel rising when I’m surrounded by clutter.

The unpleasantness of clutter is as much, if not more, a psychological issue as it is a topic of home design. Clutter can be a matter of the mind. It can immobilize us. It can get in the way of clear thinking, even clear functioning. It can derail us when it becomes excessive.

Davis. H. (2012)

In Notes on a Nervous Planet Matt Haig discusses just how quickly the human race has developed; from wearing animal skins 50,000 years ago to developing civilisation in Mesopotamia. It’s just a 4,0000-year hop, skip and jump from the first money and alphabet to email and space travel.

Did social evolution really give ourselves enough time to adapt to the modern way of life? Or are we all really just experiencing our natural pre-civilisation urges to feel anxious when we scan the horizon?

Historically we had a natural need to belong to a social group or tribe, as this was crucial for our survival. Our brains therefore have a strong ability to spot things that don’t belong which, in this instance, could be all the things your eyes have spotted ‘on the horizon’.

Our limbic brain is powerful, powerful enough to drive behaviour that sometimes contradicts our rational and analytical understanding of a situation.

Sinek, S. (2009) p.57

If you’ve ever had a ‘gut feeling’ that something was wrong but you couldn’t tell what, that’s your limbic brain sparking into action. It’s irrational, but instinctual. That’s why you can sometimes feel ‘off’ when nothing seems to be wrong on the surface of it. And we tend to trust our gut instincts in a lot of situations don’t we? Especially in over-stimulating environments.

Introverts in particular can easily feel overstimulated. Psychologist Hans Eysenck (Chung, M. 2016) proposed that extroverts can cope with higher levels of stimulation and that intoroverts are more sensitive, therefore requiring low-key environments.

When we feel overloaded in a situation or environment, we can become anxious or even panic. Haig discusses the how overstimulating the modern world can be and the effect this can have on our mental health.

Panic is the product of overload. In an overloaded world we need to have a filter. We need to simplfy things. We need to disconnect sometimes… A kind of mental feng shui.

Haig, M. (2019) p.37

So, if you don’t want to feel stressed in your own home, panicked by an overload of belongings and under attack from your posessions, maybe now’s the time to streamline your stuff?

Chung, M. (2016) The Irresistable Introvert. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

Bourg Carter, S. (2012) Why Mess Causes Stress: 8 Reasons, 8 Remedies. [Online]. [Accessed 25th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201203/why-mess-causes-stress-8-reasons-8-remedies

Davis, H. (2012) The Perils of Clutter. [Online]. [Accessed 25th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/caveman-logic/201206/the-perils-clutter

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

Sinek, S. (2009) Start With Why. London: Penguin.