As soon as we steered our car onto the tree-lined, suburban side street, we knew it: we were home. It was the perfect place for us to lay our roots as a newlywed couple. We could picture ourselves inviting friends to this place, bringing our first baby home from the hospital, and hosting on the little front porch. We made an offer on the charming three-bedroom home that night and within two months, we were fully moved in.
It seems so strange to think that within a few years, we would suddenly feel like it wasn’t enough.
Something happened when we hit our late twenties. A mass exodus sprung up out of (seemingly) nowhere: many of our friends and acquaintances were shedding their first homes in favor of something bigger, grander, nicer. We started to notice that the middle-class American Way seemed to have a pattern, in which new stages in life bring new trappings: a promotion, a new baby, and other milestones prompt a lifestyle upgrade. A bigger house. A new car. A second home. As we watched this pattern play out among our friends, I found myself wondering whether what we had was adequate, or if we needed to “level up,” too.
What I didn’t realize was that my feelings were virtually inevitable.
We’ve all heard the catchphrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” but research reveals that the pressure to keep up has reached pathological proportions. A recent OnePoll study of 2,000 Americans, commissioned on behalf of Wilsonart, for instance, found that 34 percent of all home improvement and renovation projects are only done “to keep up with or impress a friend, family member, or neighbor.” What’s more, the average homeowner has spent more than $3,500 on home improvements and renovations only done to impress other people. And the study revealed that this competitive spirit among friends and neighbors is unlikely to change anytime soon: 42 percent of those surveyed admitted that they feel pressure to have the nicest home in the neighborhood and nearly half reported feeling jealous when friends showed off their newest renovation projects.
But, why? Why do we feel such an irrepressible need to keep up?
The endless quest for bigger, better, and more
In a recent article on the cultural phenomenon of optimization obsession, the unquenchable thirst for a better way to live, Verily editor Emily Lehman writes about “the myth of the ideal lifestyle,” something she describes as an addictive mentality that the ideal lifestyle is out there, waiting for us to claim it. In essence, it’s a vulnerability to the belief that there is always one more product that will help us achieve the next level of happiness (hence the undeniable and often dizzying success of Instagram influencers who, through their perfectly curated digital personas, imply that they’ve already arrived).
Could the systemic and almost pathological need to constantly “upgrade” our lives be a shadow of this? Brands certainly thrive on this type of messaging (Your kitchen is dated! What you want and need is this marble subway tile—then your life will look just like Chip and Joanna’s personal Utopia!”). But the afore-cited research about the overwhelming percentage of Americans who report jealousy and pressure to “keep up” arguably belies something deeper: a belief that somehow, we aren’t worthy of admiration and respect if we don’t have certain things.
This is precisely the message of a consumerist culture: your life simply won’t be complete unless you amass a certain level of material wealth. Unless your life looks a certain way. Unless you can “keep up” with the latest fads in fitness, personal style, and home decor. Unless you are more well-heeled than your neighbors, colleagues, and friends. When we are constantly bombarded by messages that we need more, more, and more, how could we not feel discontented?
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced me to consider how I can use my resources well, and after months of scrolling Zillow and popping into open houses “just to look,” I’ve finally realized that right now, buying a bigger house just isn’t practical or frankly, even desirable. The shifting global circumstances have encouraged me to see what I already have as enough.
In her book The Grace of Enough: Pursuing Less and Living More in a Throwaway Culture, author Haley Stewart shares how a year-long internship on a sustainable farm challenged her family of five to forsake the trappings of middle-class suburban life in favor of compostable toilets and 650 square feet of living space. Stewart writes that the results were astonishing: increased satisfaction with, appreciation of, and intentionality in their daily lives. Reconnecting with the land, nurturing community, living simply, offering hospitality, and centering days around relationships rather than the acquisition of things brought her family closer together and deeply enriched their lives.
The book stands as a refreshing alternate narrative to the culture of keeping up. And fortunately, more and more voices are prompting us to another way of living and thinking—a contrast to the chorus of more, more, more that our culture pressures us to accept. People like Lara Casey, the founder of the Cultivate What Matters brand; podcaster Nancy Ray, who institutes an annual contentment challenge; and Emily Ley, founder of the Simplified company and author of the new book When Less Becomes More, collectively represent a shift in favor of less rather than the impulse to keep up.
Not to mention, there is nothing like an upheaval of the global economy to force contentment. In an age where toilet paper is hard to come by, maybe, just maybe, it’s not time to optimize, but to rest in what we already have. To sit within our imperfect four walls and realize that we have everything we need. Maybe even more.
Recently, I stole a rare moment of quiet before my six-month-old was up for the day. Looking around my living room, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of peace and gratitude. For the first time in years, I did not feel an impulse to improve something, to gripe about its imperfections, or to daydream about having something else, something better. I felt the undeniable and irresistible peace of knowing that I needed absolutely nothing else. And for the first time in a long time (and maybe for the first time ever), I realized that no amount of material wealth or luxuries would even hold a candle to the joy of accepting, of knowing in the deepest part of myself, “the grace of enough.”