Why we want and buy things we don’t need

My wife recently bought a new carpet for our living room. The problem was the carpet was a different color and pattern and seemed so out of place with the other furniture and paintings.

She then started contemplating changing all the cushion covers to match the new carpet. She also wants to repaint all the walls in the sitting room. I watched in amazement as she pondered all these options and I told her that her frustration is exactly what Diderot the French philosopher experienced and wrote about in 1763.

This frustration is commonly referred to as the Diderot Effect, named after a French philosopher named Denis Diderot. The story goes like this: after living his entire life impoverished and struggling to get by, in 1763, Catherine the Great offered him a large sum of money in exchange for his library. (Diderot founded Encyclopédie, and was a notoriously well-read man.)

Upon receiving the money, he purchased a new scarlet robe… and then he wanted more.Rather than feeling content and grateful for what he was given, Diderot fell into a spiral of dissatisfaction. He even said there was “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty” in his life, because the scarlet robe was so out-of-place in comparison to rest of his humble belongings.

So he began to buy more stuff, slowly sifting through every part of his life until he was drowning in excess and luxury and debt and, most importantly, dissatisfaction.

There are more examples of the Diderot Effect all around us:

* We buy a new shirt or dress… and immediately begin looking for new shoes to match.

* We bring home a new couch… and suddenly the end tables in our living room appear old and shabby, in need of replacement.

* We purchase a new car… and soon begin spending money on car washes, more expensive gasoline, or a parking pass.

* We move into a new home… and use the occasion to replace our existing bedroom set with a new one.

So beware as you buy new stuff and all of a sudden you have to incur a lot of unplanned expenses. Next time you buy something new remember the story of Diderot.

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