Have style, not a lifestyle

I briefly worked with a senior technical manager whose wife also worked for the same company, but at a different site. They'd bought a house about halfway in between, but they both had long commutes. When I mentioned that my wife didn't have a regular job, he said, "I wish I could do that, but I need the second income to support my lifestyle."

When I got home that evening I told my wife, "I'm sure glad I only have to support us and not a lifestyle too."

When you get to the point that you start talking about your lifestyle as if it were an additional member of the household, you're far, far gone.

Avoid having a lifestyle. But that does not mean not having style. In fact, having style is very important. Having style is how you resist the dreaded Diderot effect.

You can't read very many articles on simple living without running into Diderot and his effect. Denis Diderot was a French writer who wrote a famous essay "Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown," in which he describes how a handsome new dressing gown that he received as a gift was so nice his other furnishings no longer seemed to match it. He ended up buying all new--a leather chair to replace his straw one, a desk to replace his table, new pictures, new clock, new bureau.

The essay is famous not only among advocates of simple living, but also among advertisers who yearn to trigger the Diderot effect in every buyer. If they can but get you to buy one nice thing that makes everything else you own seem shabby, then they can get you, like Diderot, to upgrade everything.

The key to resisting the Diderot effect is to have style. Not just any old style, but a particular style. Something nicer than everything else you own isn't in keeping with your style and that makes it easier to resist: It's just not you.

If, despite your efforts, you do end up with one very nice thing, think of it as special and not a reason to upgrade your other stuff. After all, there's nothing wrong with having a very nice thing.

It's fascinating to watch how advertisers try to suck you in. They know the power of the Diderot effect, and the way it affects not only you, but all your neighbors as well. Not only you will want more nice stuff, but all your neighbors will need to upgrade their things as well, just to keep up.

You can thwart them, though, if you have style.

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Guest's picture

Excellent insight. Thanks


Myscha Theriault's picture

Another great article, Philip.

Personally, my favorite "lifestyle" is to not have to work for anyone in particular, to only use my time on projects I feel are valuable, and to have control over my time.

OK, I also like to occasionally match my shoes and pocketbook. I'm a chick, what can I say?

Guest's picture

Good, glad you're devoting yourself to full-time writing - looking forward to reading more thought-provoking articles.

Guest's picture

I actually experience the opposite effect. Whenever I buy something nice it ends up hanging in the closet because I can't find the right occasion to wear it! And even if I do find the occasion, I don't want to because I'm afraid to ruin it and...so on...so sad

Guest's picture

I like the quote "When you get to the point that you start talking about your lifestyle as if it were an additional member of the household, you're far, far gone." I would say there is still hope, they just need to change some values and the course their ship.

Philip Brewer's picture

There are a lot of decisions that aren't worth spending much time on. For those, having a style--so that one choice or another is the obvious one for you--can save a lot of time, effort, and agonizing. If that style is an expensive one, though, the result can be a lot of extra spending--spending made pretty much on autopilot. One answer is being mindful in the big decisions that lead you to your personal style, so that you don't have to be quite so mindful of each individual little decision after that.

And, of course, it's never too late to change your style.

Guest's picture

Apparently, getting your teeth done (i.e. cosmetic dentistry) has the Diderot effect, at least in the UK where perfect teeth just aren't that common.

Guest's picture

I think most people have a very difficult time determining what is really important to them. Instead they look at what is important to other people and make purchases based on what they see around them.

They end up with a lifestyle that doesn't really reflect their values. It just reflects their peer's purchases.

Guest's picture

Stumbled upon this and others of writing - thank you. (I'm gathering quotes for a "living a conscious life" meetup group - we're going to be talking about simplicity.)

As for me, I'm sure it's saved me thousands of dollars throughout my adult life to not have a tv. I think it explains a lot of the differences between my 2 sisters, and myself, and our very different choices.

Guest's picture

What you have described is about using personal style to reverse the Diderot effect. Rather than having new acquisitions define a new style for you, you use your style to define what new acquisitions will fit into it. Such a view is not at odds with having and acquiring possessions. Instead, it imposes a personal purpose on them. It harmonizes nicely with a longer term perspective. It is much easier to postpone buying something for a few months in order to get just the right thing when one anticipates that it will fill a particular place in one's life for years to come. I've found that for myself it has also meant that I have a great love for repairing items that fit my style to keep them serviceable for as long as I can because often the right replacement no longer exists.

Guest's picture
Ian Tremblay

Actually, the Diderot effect is bidirectional, in the sense that it can trigger a cascade of aligning the constellation of your possessions to match a new acquisition, but it is also the force that maintains the consistency and coherence of the pattern among one's possessions. In other words, the same force that drives rolling style changes is the one that resists change to begin with by constraining the consumer to stay within his or her existing pattern.