More than likely you’ve heard the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” more than a few times in your life. What refers to is the phenomenon of using your neighbors as a standard for which to compare your own life and material goods. For example, when they buy a new boat, you buy a newer and bigger boat. Many people engage in this common but ultimately negative financial habit and, instead of stuffing money into their savings, college or retirement accounts, waste it on things that really don’t add a whole lot to their life. (Seriously, how many times a year do you really think you’re going to use that boat?)
Today it’s even worse, what with the slew of “reality TV” programs, lifestyle magazines and celebrity gossip websites that literally inundate us on a daily basis about which “star” purchased something recently, what it was and how much it cost. Unfortunately, this not only adds to our problem of conspicuous consumption (a problem that’s growing for all people, economic levels and races) but it also is negatively affecting our finances and even how we feel about ourselves.
Whether intended or not, most humans have a tendency to compare themselves to other people. For example, one of the first things that most people notice when they meet someone new is whether or not that person is taller or shorter than they are. This can sometimes be useful in the absence of objective standards but it sometimes also can point out that, on some level (usually financial) we are somehow “inferior”, something that can make humans, who are naturally envious, even more so.
Envy, to be sure, is a natural human emotion and it can be found in every culture around the globe. In some ways it can be useful as well but, in many ways, it can have negative side effects that can be quite significant. It can cause people to feel dissatisfaction with what they have, who they are or where they are in their life. The big problem is that in many cases people are willing to spend extra money in order to “make up” for any perceived inferiority that they have.(Sometimes a whole lot of extra money.)
Even worse, many of the negative effects that envy causes don’t stop with financial behaviors that are self-defeating but can actually have an impact on our physical and mental health due to the biological stress that they cause. This stress can cause damage to our immune system and our cardiovascular system over a long period of time.
We’re not alone in these behaviors by any means. For example, Capuchin monkeys will, if they see another monkey receiving greater rewards, refuse their smaller reports. (And thus the term “silly monkey” was born.) The biggest problem is that, as our population continues to grow older, putting money aside for retirement becomes increasingly important. With all of the environmental and psychological factors that people are fighting against however it can sometimes seem like an uphill battle.
The fact is, unless “celebrities” start showing off their retirement portfolios rather than their “bling”, this habit of social comparison and envy is only going to continue and probably get worse. Another fact is that it’s hard to get past it seeing as he is a human emotion that most of us have. It can be done however, and many people these days are shunning a lifestyle of consumerism in favor of living in smaller homes, driving more economical cars and purchasing much less “stuff”.
At the end of the day, there’s no amount of stuff that will truly make anyone happy and, unless your filthy rich, trying to keep up with your neighbors just for the right to be able to say that you have something bigger, faster, better or whatever is only going to lead to financial and possible health problems. It’s your choice of course but, if you’re smart, you’ll avoid becoming a silly monkey and simply stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. (No offense to smart monkeys everywhere, of course.)