Keeping Up With the Joneses?

Aerial photo of marina and plush homes
Image credit: photo by Luiz Centenaro on Unsplash.

We’ve all felt that pressure before. The urge to buy something new, or to move into the bigger house, the nicer car, or even the new purse in order to make ourselves feel as if we belong is a common one. And we often don’t look too deeply into those purchases, instead saying to ourselves (and others) that we just needed a bigger house. Or a car with more horsepower. Or shoes that match our new outfit. Is this really true, or is this a rationalization?

This extends to what we do and buy for our children, too:

  • We want our children to have the best SAT tutor, the nicest clothes, and everything that we believe they need to succeed in the world.
  • There is also a sense of societal pressure, real or imagined, in our wanting to have and give the best to our children.
  • We might want to give them all that we didn’t have in our childhoods, or merely want to ensure that they never lack, because, frankly, why shouldn’t they have all that they want and need?

If we have not worked through our childhood issues around what we did not get, we are more likely to play out the Keeping up with the Joneses phenomenon.

But at its heart, this phenomenon of spending only in order to keep up with members of our socio-economic group, may mean that we have lost track of what is truly most important to us. Instead we may be medicating or avoiding emotional pain with buying “stuff” and are trying to fill an internal void with external sources.

Does this bring me joy?

There is one simple question that we can ask ourselves before any purchase. It’s a barometer for whether the item – whether it’s a house, a car, or a specialized soccer coach – is truly something that we want:

  • Asking whether an item brings you joy (and if you hesitate, it may be a “no”) can help to give you some clarity. At a minimum, this question deserves more processing.

When we’re talking about things that we buy for our children, the matter is slightly more complicated:

  • As mentioned, most of us have deep-seated conceptualizations around what our children need.
  • And it can be hard to separate out what is a true need versus that which we have defined as a need by the discussions of others. For instance, do our children truly need a tutor for multiple subjects, plus piano lessons, specialized sports coaching, and multiple STEM summer camps?
  • Research actually shows that children need unstructured play time more than any of these more formal trainings, however when we hear from others about what their children are doing, we often feel that we need these things, too, in order to have Johnny get accepted into the best schools.

Examining your true values:

But what is truly most important to us?

  • Do we want our children to be world-class athletes and Harvard grads, or do we most want them to be happy?
  • Do we want to have more family time, or to work longer hours in order to afford more material things?

One easy way to look at what’s most important is to complete this sentence with as many endings as you can in the next ten minutes. Don’t edit or think about it, just write. You can do this exercise once per morning for five days in order to get even more clarity. (There will be some repetition, of course, which is totally fine.)

  • If I gave 5% more awareness to what I value most, I would…

Teens more at risk?

For children and teens, this sense of comparison might have even stronger repercussions. Good Morning America’s recent segment featuring Rich Kids on Instagram (#RKOI) inspired strong responses from watchers, showcasing elite kids in private jets, yacht parties, and Paris hotel suites.

And just like any of us adults who can’t seem to get enough of the lifestyles of the rich, teens and kids are just as enamored of watching others’ extravagant lives. But as anyone with a teenager knows, popularity and status are even more important to teens, and this can lead to an even greater split between what a teen has (tangible and non-tangible items) and what they see on Instagram and Facebook, possibly even leading to depression, anxiety and alienation.

What’s the solution?

The solution for both adults and teens is to:

  • Find ways to channel your own uniqueness.
  • Find those things that you excel at, or that you enjoy doing, and allow yourself more time for these things instead of the myriad of other things that we have pushed onto our own plates.
  • Go back to that list of what you would do with 5% more awareness – does anything suggest itself?

One other very effective technique (and this can be done with any age group) is gratitude journaling:

  • Writing down all of the things in your life that you have to be thankful for.
  • Do this at least a few times per week.
  • Gratitude journaling is a thoroughly researched and scientifically proven way to increase your feelings of happiness and respect for the beautiful life that you do have.

Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, also recommends giving back to others as a way to substantially increase happiness around money, no matter which income level you may find yourself. From her research, she also advocates using your money to buy yourself time instead of material goods:

Don’t buy a slightly fancier car so that you have heated seats during your two-hour commute. Buy a place closer to work, so that you can use that final hour of daylight to kick a ball around in the park with your kids.

Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Help with filling the void:

If you recognize that you or your child struggles with keeping up with others, either from a material or self-esteem perspective, it might help to speak with a licensed therapist.

A good psychotherapist will help you work through emotional and historical issues that may be standing in the way of high self-esteem, allowing you to feel more confident, no matter what is going on around you.

That's why at Nassau Guidance & Counseling, we work with teens, adults, and families to learn effective tools for improving your life, and we look forward to speaking with you!

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