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People love new stuff – it’s a fact.
According to a National Institutes of Health study, when we see and anticipate buying something new, our brains release dopamine to motivate us to explore it so we can find rewards it might offer. Familiar things that we know don’t conceal rewards don’t elicit the release of dopamine to inspire exploration.
So basically, new things = increased dopamine levels = good feelings. Other things that increase dopamine levels include sex, drugs, rock n’ roll [music], exercise, goal-attainment, sleep, exposure to sunlight, meditation and certain foods.
Accepting that we’re hard-wired to get pleasure from new things just like we’re hard-wired to get pleasure from sex suggests that we might seek out new things even when we don’t need them just because they make us feel good.
While heading to Nordstrom for retail therapy is less caustic than a drug bender, it’s not without its impact. In the US, a culture of disposable fashion has us buying five times as much clothing as we did in 1980 and adding roughly 10.5 million tons of textile waste to landfills every year. And that’s just clothes.
As I consider my goals for 2019, I want to aim for a not-so-new year. I want to be happy, but I don’t want to chase new things for the dopamine rush, filling my life with clutter that quickly loses its thrill.
I’m NOT seeking a lifestyle with zero environmental impact. I admire those who try, but that’s just not where I’m at right now. I have a husband who is VERY attached to his creature comforts and a dog who eats most of his leashes as well as two 50-lb bags of food each month. I’m definitely going to be buying things this year.
That said, in an effort to beat the addiction to newness, consume less and reduce my environmental footprint, I’m going to pledge to follow the tips below. Will you join me in resolving to try for a not-so-new year?
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1. Know my needs
I know that I need food and water. While I don’t need a toothbrush, I would freak out if I couldn’t have one because I’m really big on dental hygiene. For the year ahead, I want to categorize things according to my needs and try to limit my forays into the less need-based categories.
Tier 1: Real Needs – Things indisputably necessary for life. They include food, water, oxygen and shelter.
Tier 2: Basic Comforts – Things that are necessary for me to maintain a sense of hygiene and comfort like my toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, a bath towel, my glasses, light bulbs and toilet paper. It’s stuff I could live without, but doing so would be uncomfortable.
Tier 3: Functional Necessities – Things that derive their necessity from the context of my life. For instance, I need shoes I can wear to work and I need shoes I can wear to walk my dog because I’m a “professional” and a “dog-owner.” I need enough clothing to be able to dress myself in the summer and the winter. Things like alarm clocks and backpacks fall in this category too.
Tier 4: Practical Luxuries – These things fill a void or act as an upgrade to make life tangibly more pleasant or easy. For example, a new towel rack that saves space and helps my towels dry so they don’t smell like mildew is a definite improvement. A bread knife fits in this category too. Necessary? No! Useful for cutting bread? Hell yes!
Tier 5: Superfluous Luxuries – These things are duplicates that offer no value proposition aside from their newness. Fancy foot scrubs with kooky new ingredients, trendy new jewelry, a new handbag that’s more stylish – these things are all luxuries. They don’t fill any void or help me function more efficiently or effectively. They’re just extra.
If it something falls in tier four or five, I’m going to think twice before I buy it.
2. If it’s broken, why not fix it?
In eighth grade, one of my teachers commented on how wasteful it is to buy new pens instead of refilling the ink. My reaction? Wait, they make pens you can refill?!?!
While a tendency toward the disposable dominates here in the US, it doesn’t have to be that way.
I already sew the holes in my clothes but this year, shoes will be resoled, wood will be glued and time will be spent schlepping random stuff to my local hardware store so I can get the right nut / rivet / screw / thingy to help my stuff regain its function.
3. Can you buy it used?
My husband tends to get skeeved out by used things, but I’m hoping that in the coming year I can use cost savings to appeal to him. When I “need” something, I’ll check out:
If I’m not able to resist the seductive call of tier five luxuries, I’ll turn to online consignment shops or local thrift shops. After all, the thrill of newness doesn’t depend on the thing being new in general – just new to you. I’m always amazed by the treasures concealed in the secondhand shops I stumble into. If you’re doing away with all-new-everything too, check out:
- The RealReal
- Seams to Fit – if you’re in Portland, OR, check out this B Corp!
There are also sites that facilitate barter or free giving rather than monetary exchange for goods. Once again, they’re a great way to get what you want / need and keep something from going to waste. I know about BuyNothing and Freecycle but I’m sure there are other services too – if you know of one, please share in the comments below.
4. Could it be shared?
The sharing economy is a hot topic, and there are several sites that facilitate peer-to-peer sharing and renting. Depending on your needs and your situation, it can make a lot of sense. If you’re interested, check out the sites below:
**Note – Read liability information carefully before you rent and crash your neighbor’s Ferrari 😉
- Zilok offers everything from vacation homes to cars to tools, moonbounces and popcorn machines
- loanables can help you find tons of items including AV equipment, electronics, lawn care tools and more
- RentNotBuy offers musical instruments, books, apparel, vehicles and tons of other stuff
- It’s also worth searching for community tool banks in your area, like this one in Baltimore.
This is just a taste of what’s out there. If you need a specialty item once in a blue moon, renting or borrowing is a great way to get use of it without adding to your stockpile of stuff. Make sure to check out your neighborhood listservs too!
5. Buy quality
So many products are made to break, forcing consumers to buy new ones. When possible, I’m going to buy quality this year. I’ll look at products that last longer and come with replaceable parts. I might also consider more warranties, since they can transform a situation where the cost of repair is comparable to buying a new product.
6. Remain calm in Target
Sometimes, I walk into Target to buy something and the second my feet cross the threshold of that automatic sliding door, I can’t remember what that thing is. Instead, I wind my way through a carefully constructed labyrinth of things that beg to be examined, considered and bought.
I’m usually able to resist the urge to purchase but to my husband’s chagrin, I still circumambulate retail stores with a determination to exhaustively examine everything I could buy.
Gretchen Rubin, the psychologist behind The Happiness Project, makes a distinction between under-buyers and over-buyers. The former don’t buy things they need, while the later surround themselves with things that serve no purpose or expire before they’re used.
If Rubin’s quick quiz reveals you to be an over-buyer, I highly recommend Lifehacker’s article How to Program Your Mind to Stop Buying Crap You Don’t Need. It offers great tips and I’ve taken the liberty of extracting my favorites below:
- Just because something is on sale DOES NOT mean you should buy it. Red lettering will make you want to take action, but you can resist.
- Develop a personal “should I buy this?” test tailored to your weaknesses. It might include questions like: Is this a planned purchase? Why do I want / need this thing? Where am I going to put it?
- Chill out – if you see something you want to buy on impulse, walk away and do the rest of your shopping or sleep on it. You might realize you don’t need it after all.
- Practice the “HALT” method – don’t shop when you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.
Not falling prey to the desire for newness is only one of my goals for this year, but it’s an important one. Do you have any planet-friendly goals for the year ahead? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
Main Image Photo Credit: Jeff Werner. Thanks Jeff!
This post was originally published on December 30th, 2015 and updated on January 15th, 2019.