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An undeniable feature of human life is that it is full of ups and downs, highs and lows, pleasures and pains, and joys and sorrows. Given the choice, everyone would prefer a constant experience of ups, highs, pleasures and joys – never having to suffer the anguish caused by their opposites. But the very nature of human experience is comparative – and it is because there is pain that we seek and enjoy the pleasure. The contrast provides the relief and we end up with a longing for more of it. That is an inherent human tendency. But we are misguided in what can provide that permanent relief.

The Diderot Effect

Denis Diderot (1713–1784) was an 18th century French philosopher and was the chief editor of the Encylopedie, one of the outstanding literary works of the Enlightenment era. He lived much of his life in poverty. However, his fortunes changed in 1765 when Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia – who was an admirer of his works – purchased Diderot’s entire library and appointed him as the librarian, paying him a substantial annual salary to look after it.
Now wealthier and able to buy previously inaccessible luxuries, Diderot’s spending habits changed. He describes the spiral of unnecessary spending stemming from the purchase of a seemingly harmless scarlet robe. With a new elegant scarlet robe in his possession, Diderot felt that the other, old decor in his house did not match the charm of his new robe. So, using his newly ac-quired wealth, he splashed out on a series of upgrades to blend in with and complement his new stylish robe – new clothes, furniture, home decorations and other things.
Ultimately, however, he realized the folly of this approach and in a candid, light-hearted essay resorts to self-examination and analysis of his unnecessary spending. He points out the knock-on effect of one purchase pushing him to make another purchase, and so on. In this essay, ‘Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown’ his insights provide a lesson to modern-day consumers. He says, “I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one…. My friends, fear the touch of wealth. Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its free-doms; opulence has its obstacles.”
In 1988, based on the story of Diderot’s spending spree, anthropologist Grant McCracken coined the term ‘Diderot Effect’ to represent the idea that items purchased by consumers will reflect their sense of identity and that current items which do not match their new items are replaced by more spending. We almost always seek to upgrade from what we have. This is the endless desire for more.

The Disease of  More

The ‘Disease of More’ is the perpetual pursuit to add to one’s pleasure, passion, prestige and power. People are constantly seeking to acquire more. We seek to acquire a newer phone, better car, larger house, bigger income, more fame and other bigger, better, faster things. There is nothing inherently wrong in pursuing these objectives. But after they are attained, the pleasure, joy, happiness they provide remain only for a while – then we are knocked off the pleasure pedestal and we seek to acquire an even newer phone, better car, larger home, bigger income and more fame. And the cycle of pleasure and pain continues. This is the disease of more – the never-ending desire to have more than we already have. Ultimately, these are merely things – material objects and pleasures. By nature, they are temporary and contextual. Just as seasons come and go, these things pass from being the latest fad and soon fade into obscurity.
The changing trends in clothes, phones, cars and other objects of desire are themselves proof that nothing is constant. But the disease for more grips like an addictive drug. The high it gives can be so intoxicating and alluring that one desires more of it. We pursue and acquire, but are never satisfied.
Not satisfied with a high income, trendy clothes, a spacious home, luxury car and other ‘in things’, we want to get to the next level – more money, a bigger house, a more luxurious car, more things. Money and material objects do make one happy. But only to a limited extent and for a limited period.
Science explains our predicament. When we desire something, our pursuit and anticipation to acquire it raises our dopamine levels. Once the craving is quenched, that dopamine high subsides. This is the basic physiology that drives our overactive consumerism.
When we crave for chocolate cake or ice cream, the first serving is really enjoyed. But as more servings are offered and forced upon us, the initial desire turns to disgust – because the dopamine kick has worn off. When we come inside a warm house from a freezing cold blizzard we initially sit close to the fire. But after a while, we move further away, since now the heat is causing discomfort. Once we acquire an object of desire the high soon fades away and it becomes just another thing that we have.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan has explained in Vachana­mrut Gadhada II 47 that desires are never-ending through a wonderful analogy. He says, “Just as if the earth splits to the core, one cannot fill it with even all the water of all the oceans. Similarly, the canyon of our desires can never be quenched.”

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