If you live in the English-speaking West and especially if you’re from the United States, it is highly like you will have come across the phrase, keeping up with the Joneses. For those unfamiliar with the idiom, it refers to the way in which people use their neighbour’s material possessions and lifestyles as the benchmark for their own ‘success’.
The phrase originated with the publication of an American comic strip of the same name created by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand in 1913 based on the McGinis family, who struggled to “keep up” with the lifestyle of their neighbours, the Joneses. Back then, and even today, not being able to keep up with the Joneses is perceived as a failure, in a culture driven by materialism, status and chock full of social climbers. Society’s definition of ‘a good life’ centres around aspirational lifestyles, designer purchases, exotic holidays and physical appearances – all one needs to do is scroll through Instagram and Facebook to see the pursuit of these goals in action.
While humans cannot help being social creatures who are influenced by the choices, opinions and lifestyles of the people they are closest to, as well as the society in which they live, there are multiple downsides to making choices based solely on a framework built by external influences.
- mental health issues such as depression associated with ‘comparinitis’ that can trigger feelings of low self-worth;
- huge financial debt which can cause worry and strain on romantic and family relationships;
- health issues such as insomnia and heart disease associated with the work and financial stress of maintaining and chasing a particular lifestyle;
- envy and jealousy of others because of what they own, where they live, and how they dress;
- misplaced values in which money, material goods and the need for external validation become more important than family, relationships, ethics and noble pursuits;
- feelings of shame associated with living beyond your means, being unable to service debt and fearing that you will be found out;
- substance abuse and addiction as a result of trying to cope with the financial strain; and
- domestic violence and conflict related to spiralling debt and money stress.
So if you’re struggling with “keeping up with the Joneses” and want to overcome its compare and competition mindset, here are some tips to help you do just that:
1. Know your values and what is most important to you.
Once you become crystal clear about what it is that you value, you are less likely to turn life into a contest and more likely to make choices that are in line with your values, what’s most important to you and what makes you truly happy.
Not sure what you value? Here are some questions to consider: Do you value financial freedom? What about quality time with your loved ones? Do you value good health and inner peace? How about the environment?
If keeping up with the Joneses means you have work at a job you hate, don’t get to spend time with your partner or kids, pushes you to live paycheck to paycheck, don’t get any time off because you’re too busy fixing and maintaining all your possessions or requires you to take out more debt to buy more stuff, you might want to stop and ask yourself– is it really worth it?
As minimalist advocate and blogger Joshua Becker puts it: “Deep down, do we even want those things? Do we even want to change our clothing styles? Or buy the new car… or boat… or bigger house in the gated community? Or would we much prefer our own life and our own choices? Wouldn’t we much prefer to pursue our own values?”
2. Remember there is no such thing as the perfect person, perfect family or perfect life.
It was Pastor Steve Furtick who said, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel”. How true this is in the digital age, where a growing body of research shows that using social media platforms can have a detrimental effect on the psychological health of users and that “social media envy can affect the level of anxiety and depression in individuals”.
In a carefully curated social media world where we are constantly bombarded with status updates and photos that project perfect relationships, perfect homes, perfect outfits and perfect lives, remembering that there is no such thing as perfection will go a long way to reducing the pangs of jealousy that may prompt you to compare and compete. Remember, just because someone’s life looks perfect on Instagram or Facebook, doesn’t mean that it is.
3. Unfollow overly materialistic influencers.
As outlined in this article 7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying Anything social media influencers are effective in getting viewers and followers to part with their hard-earned dollars on stuff and promoting an aspirational concept of “the good life”. (In fact, influencers are such a cultural phenomenon that Netflix is making a docu-soap series on “hot Instagrammers living their best lives, being their best selves, creating the best drama content” much to the dismay of Byron Bay locals).
Now if your favourite influencers are only ever focused on promoting material goods, expensive holidays, unattainable lifestyles, brand sponsorships and #ads that create feelings of envy, FOMO, depression, anxiety or stress, unfollowing their accounts to stop their constant messaging will go a long way to preserving your mental health and personal finances.
Of course it’s a lot harder to avoid family members, work colleagues or neighbours who are overly materialistic and trigger the desire to want things, but being mindful of when these feelings arise is a good first step in not succumbing to them.
4. Learn to live within your means and avoid measuring self-worth with possessions.
This is hard to do when businesses and financial institutions are tempting you to live beyond your means by making access to credit cards, personal loans and buy now, pay later schemes such as Afterpay so easy. But remember that much of “keeping up with the Joneses” is mindless spending and conspicuous consumption as a way to score social points and measure self-worth. Instead, learn to live within your means and give yourself a pat on the back each time you make the conscious choice to say no to buying something that on credit or that won’t provide long-term fulfilment or happiness.
5. Remove temptations that fuel your desire to shop.
If you’re battling huge amounts of personal and credit card debt this is an important step to take – particularly if you’re already struggling trying to pay off the minimum monthly payments. Unsubscribe to brand newsletters. Cut up the credit card. Avoid the shopping centre. Whatever you think you have to do to remove shopping temptations to help keep you focused on the things you value and help you live within your means. Create an environment where you aren’t seduced to spend just to keep up with social appearances. This advice follows a similar philosophy to point #3.
6. Just stop giving a fuck.
One of the quickest ways to overcome the compare and competition mindset advocated by the rest of society is to just stop giving a fuck about what other people are buying, what they are doing and what they think about the choices you make. Embracing your individualism and refusing to conform to other people’s ideas of how you should live your life is by far the easiest way to stop playing the game of one-upmanship called “keeping up with the Joneses”. Forget about what people are doing in their lives and focus on what you’re doing in your own.
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Cover image by Max Libertine.