This is part of my series: American Zombie: How To Stop Being A Mindless Consumer.
Your culture sets your expectation for what is “normal.” Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together. ― “Atomic Habits” by James Clear
As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and assimilated their patterns for frugal living. They lived modestly, driving used cars, cooking at home, bottling homegrown peaches/apricots/apples/cherries, and spurning debt. And now, as an adult, I think it’s normal to buy used cars, wear clothes until they wear out, and avoid debt.
In my old age, I now understand that growing up with a frugal family was an incredible gift. My upbringing shaped my worldview, and as a consequence, I spend less money, have more stability, and endure less stress.
In my old age, I’ve realized that we are products of our environments. I know we want to think we’re completely autonomous thinking machines. But we’re not. We imitate the people we regularly see. Monkey see, monkey do, as the old saying goes.
According to René Girard (1923—2015), we go beyond imitating others’ behaviors: we imitate their desires, too. Spend enough time with someone, and you’ll want what they want. You’ll want what they have. And there’s a fancy term for this: Mimetic Desire.
My grandparents were frugal because they desired independence, keeping a low profile, and being able to weather economic downturns. And because I lived with them for a period, I came to desire the same things.
As I reflected on this cause-and-effect relationship and our propensity for imitation, I realized that we could consciously change our environment, and in doing so, change our behavior. We can change our consumption habits by changing whom we imitate.
My friend named Joel did just this when he wanted to become a vegan and lose weight. He primed himself by watching every documentary he could find about veganism and animal cruelty. He created a schedule and watched 30 minutes every day for a month. Over time, Joel adopted not only vegans’ behaviors but also their attitudes and aspirational goals. As a result, meat and dairy lost their appeal, going vegan became easy, and Joel lost weight. He changed his environment, which changed his behavior.
Now, changing our environment might feel insurmountable. But we can start small by considering whom we imitate.
Three areas to consider:
1. The 5 people closest to us — We tend to spend and save at the same rates as the people closest to us. If they all drive Teslas, we internalize this as normal and want a Tesla. Or if they always order water at a restaurant, we’ll follow suit.
So to consume less, spend time with people who consume less. Maybe that’s a coworker who always brings their lunch to work. Or a relative who lives more modestly than the rest of the family. Spend more time with these people, and you’ll consume less.
2. Social media’s reality distortion — Social media showcases the highlights of expensive vacations from each of our 5,000 friends. And it’s tempting to think that everyone else lives some enchanted life. It’s tempting to feel left out.
What we don’t see is the 51 weeks of the year, where our friends weren’t having a blast in Fiji. We don’t see the credit card bills and their attendant stress. And we don’t see the many parts of vacations that involve bickering over schedules, standing in line, or sleeping in strange places.
Social media doesn’t chronicle people’s mundane existence. “Here’s Herbert washing dishes. Here’s a closeup of him scraping Rice Krispies off a pink cereal bowl. Look at those wrist muscles flex! Now he’s wrangling his third poopy diaper. Three cheers for Herbert!”
Social media creates a reality distortion where our friends are raptured into a paradisiacal glory, leaving us behind, trudging through our meaningless lives. Is it any wonder that we feel envious? Is it any wonder that we hunger for a fairytale life?
The antidote is to avoid this reality distortion. Get off social media. Or, at the very least, join groups focused on minimalism and anti-consumption.
3. Other media - Many bloggers and Youtubers have made careers by showing off their latest purchases. (Just search Youtube for
shopping haul or
shopping spree.) These folks glamorize consumption and should be avoided.
Instead, follow people who imitate the behaviors you want to assimilate. For example, Netflix has documentaries and TV series about minimalism and decluttering. Youtube has numerous anti-consumption channels. And there’s a ton of minimalist podcasts, books, and audiobooks. Spend 20 minutes each day with this type of content, and your consumption habits will change.
Do an inventory of your life and consider spending more time with people who consume less. Evaluate your social media habits and follow folks who consume less. And look for documentaries, books, videos, and podcasts that discuss the benefits of simpler living.