In 1766 Catharine II of Russia offered to buy Denis Diderot’s extensive library and pay him to to serve as her librarian. The influx of $50,000 francs mean that for the first time in his adult life, he was suddenly comfortable.
He wrote an essay called Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown three years later that forms the basis for what is now known, more than two hundred years later, as the Diderot Effect.
Here’s how the Diderot Effect works:
You’re moving along in your life. Maybe you’re not as well off as you’d like, but you have what you have and you’re okay with it. And then something changes. You come into some money or someone gives you a gift or you go into debt. However it happens, you find yourself with one beautiful thing.
For Diderot, that was receiving the gift of a scarlet dressing gown.
We don’t live in a time of getting excited about dressing gowns anymore, so maybe for you it might be buying a new car. Or a coat. Or a pair of expensive shoes. Or a piece of furniture. Just one thing that’s significantly nicer than the rest of your things.
How wonderful, right?
It certainly feels like it should be. But the Diderot Effect says that what happens most of the time is that having one nice thing sets us on a consumerism spiral. A downward spiral where each new purchase makes us feel worse, uses up more of our resources (or puts us further in debt,) and does not bring us any closer to joy.
Diderot couldn’t sit at his old desk in his new dressing gown. And his old rug wouldn’t do, either. His books needed a new shelf. His prints, which he’d loved up until then, suddenly needed replacing.
And on. And on. And on.
Sometimes the Diderot Effect is a good thing: The Geranium Effect.
I’m not sure if it’s still called the Diderot Effect if it’s not tied directly to consumerism. Maybe it’s not. I think that something similar can have a very positive impact on your life, though.
I’ll call it the Geranium Effect.
I have a strong memory of reading a story when I was a little girl about a very sad woman who lived in a very dreary, worn-down house.
She bought herself a geranium. The flower is so cheerful that she decides to paint her table. The table looks so nice that she decides to clean the room. The room looks so good that she decides to hang some pretty drapes. The room makes her so happy that she decides to put on a dress that makes her feel good.
And so on and so on in a happy upward spiral.
Sometimes one nice thing in your life can help to either stop a downward spiral or instigate a needed upward spiral. One of my go-to ways of feeling better when I’m feeling down is to get a haircut. That often is enough to kick in the Geranium Effect.
Sometimes the Diderot Effect is definitely not a good thing.
That said, there is a real danger of the Geranium Effect going too far and becoming the Diderot Effect. Instead of a pleasant upward spiral of mood and joy, we find ourselves spiraling into consumerism and discontent.
We get a windfall of some kind and update some part of our lives. A new phone or computer or car or couch or apartment — whatever. And suddenly, everything that touches it seems not good enough.
We get this feeling like we deserve more.
It’s easy to talk ourselves into going into debt or getting rid of things that don’t really need upgrading or spending money on what we deserve that would be better spent else where.
The whole consumer machine is designed to kick in the Diderot Effect.
When you go to buy a car, the dealer is less concerned with your budget than they are with getting you into the highest priced vehicle you’re capable of financing.
Marketing just about any consumer product is all about selling you a lifestyle. It’s all designed to make you feel like you’re missing something.
Like Diderot’s lovely red dressing gown made him feel like his rug was too run down or his prints were too plain, even though he was happy with them before he realized that he deserved something better.
So, how do you avoid the Diderot Effect?
Just like with pretty much anything else, knowledge is power.
Understanding that the Diderot Effect is a thing and that you are at risk for being drawn into a spiral of consumerism and discontent is half the battle. It doesn’t mean that mean that you can’t have nice things. It just means that taking a minute to be aware of the effect those nice things might have on you is important.
Let’s say you’re thinking about buying a new car. Are you buying within your means? Are you falling victim to upgrading beyond what you can comfortably afford because you deserve it? Or maybe because you’ve convinced yourself that it’s a better deal somehow or safer or . . . something.
Enforcing a self-imposed buying buffer zone can help. Don’t allow yourself to buy anything non-essential without a 48-hour wait. No spur-of-the-moment purchases. No high-pressure from salespeople who work on commission. Go home. Think about it. Decide if you really need it. Decide what you actually need.
During that 48-hours take the time to really think about what will happen after your purchase. This isn’t hard for big purchases like a car or a computer. You might feel a little ridiculous, thinking this hard about something like a pair of shoes or a new coat, but stay with me here.
Let’s say this time that you’re thinking about a new pair of shoes. Are those shoes going to make you feel good about yourself? Are they going to fit in with clothes you already own?
If they instigate change at all, will it be change toward taking better care of yourself? Maybe they’ll lead to you cleaning out your closet. And taking more care with putting together your outfit Monday morning. Which makes you feel a little more confident at work. Which makes you do better work. Yay!
Or are you going to want to buy a new wardrobe to go with your new shoes? Because nothing you own is good enough. Only you can’t afford a new wardrobe, so you go to work Monday morning feeling discombobulated, either in your old shoes, or in your new shoes with old clothes that don’t feel right. You feel less confident, which reflects in your work.
Does that mean you shouldn’t buy the great new shoes? Not necessarily. Just knowing that the Diderot Effect is a thing can be enough to derail it. Or maybe instead of buying great new shoes that don’t fit with the clothes you already own, you find some that do.
Wow, that’s a lot of thinking about shoes. I know. But seriously. Try it. Make sure that if you’re purchase is going to have an effect, it’s the Geranium Effect and not the Diderot Effect.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.