Are you keeping up with the Joneses or the Kardashians?

Keeping up with the Joneses‘ is an idiom in many parts of the English-speaking world, implying successfully matching the lifestyle of your neighbours.

Idioms, or fixed expressions such as ‘costing an arm and a leg’ or ‘waste not want not’, are normally considered ‘figures of speech’ in Linguistics, and their meaning is not the regular sum of their parts. For example, to ‘kick the bucket’ must be understood as a set phrase meaning to die, and cannot be determined by analysing the words ‘kick’ and ‘bucket’ alone. As a result, many idioms are culturally specific and difficult to translate.

Nevertheless, unsurprisingly, similar idioms suggesting changing on the basis of changes you observe in others exist in many languages: for example, the delightful Mexican idiom ‘Si de tu vecino ves la barba cortar, pon la tuya a remojar’- ‘If you see your neighbor has shaved his beard, you should start lathering yours’.

But in our globalised world, who exactly are your neighbours, and should you care?

Relative deprivation

A surprisingly large part of how happy we are and how wealthy we feel appears to be based on comparisons. Some examples from Britain on the Couch demonstrate this: A 1949 study of American military personnel conducted by Stouffer found that those in arms of the military that offered more chances of promotion were actually less satisfied with their opportunities. Lawler, in 1963, found that American managers earning $40,000 a year were again less satisfied with their pay rates than were the supervisors earning $15,000.

The theory which explains these counter-intuitive findings is called ‘relative deprivation’ – where you lack or feel you lack the resources to sustain the lifestyle you are either accustomed to, or that is widely encouraged or approved of in your social circles.

Is more necessarily better?

In Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin demonstrate the fallacy that ‘more is better’ with their illustrations of the ‘fulfillment curve‘.

An increase in material wellbeing from nothing to survival (basic food, clothing and shelter) entails a sharp increase in fulfillment. A gain of some amenities for comfort (e.g. toys, a wardrobe, a bicycle) gives us another boost – although not quite as sharp. When this extends to luxuries, we still get a thrill, but the thrill diminishes with each new purchase. Think of the excitement of owning your first car, which may have been a real ‘bomb’, compared with the relatively subdued excitement of buying your fifth car – even if it is much more luxurious.

Fulfillment Curve, based on a concept in Your Money or Your Life
Fulfillment Curve, based on a concept in Your Money or Your Life

Eventually, the curve levels out, and may even start to trend downwards – rather than making our lives easier and saving us money (like a freezer may do), after a certain point, with more ‘stuff’ comes more responsibility, more stress, more maintenance, more work, and more additional costs.

On a societal level, James, author of Britain on the Couch, cites an American president who said in 1970:
‘In the next ten years, we will increase our wealth by 50 per cent. The profound question is, does this mean that we will be 50 per cent richer in any real sense, 50 per cent better off, 50 per cent happier?’

Somewhat surprisingly, James notes, the speaker was none other than advocate of raw capitalism Richard Nixon. ‘The previous year, a US government report had spelt out what is still today a fundamental tenet of almost all governments. ‘Economic indicators have become so much a part of our thinking that we tend to equate a rising national income with national well-being’… [but] once nations successfully meet the basic needs of most of their citizens, increased affluence does not increase well-being’.

Increases in a nation’s GDP can even mask important issues, such as income inequality. Although we might expect an increase in economic growth to improve health outcomes and longevity,  as an editorial of the British Medical Journal (1994) summarised, among the ‘rich nations’, there is little or no relation between the rate of economic growth and the fall in mortality. Rather, there is evidence that infant mortality rises when the rich get richer and the incomes of the poor fail to increase – something which can be masked by growth in a nation’s GDP.

Since the GDP is an increasingly poor measure of a people’s wellbeing, other measures have been suggested – such as Gross National Happiness (GNH), originating in Bhutan, widely famed as the world’s happiest nation (and coincidentally or not, the only nation to measure happiness). Bhutan was one of the last countries to introduce television, with the ban on TV only being lifted in 1999. The king described TV as a major contributor to Bhutan’s GNH, but warned against its ‘misuse’.

Keeping up with who now?

Originally the title of a comic published over a century ago, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’  has also been used as the title of an Australian reality TV series, and an American movie of the same name will be released later this month.

An even longer-running reality TV series, ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ focusing on a family described as ‘famous for being famous’, draws upon this idiom in its name, and books and songs also make use of the phrase.

Recently, I have been reading Britain on the Couch: How keeping up with the Joneses has depressed us since 1950 by Oliver James, the author of Affluenza – a book I picked up (also at an Oxfam bookshop!) the last time I was in Britain.

The main argument of Britain on the Couch seems to be that since the 1950s, the problem of social comparison has worsened, resulting in increased depression, particularly among those with less money, and women especially, for two key reasons.

Lifestyles of the rich and the famous

Firstly, television has given us unprecedented glimpses into the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, who are increasingly portrayed as our ‘equals’ or ‘friends’. Unlike the past, when kings and princes and dukes etc. were considered an entirely different category of being, we are told that we, too, could become famous singers, billionaire capitalists, or television celebrities.

Online social media has taken this phenomenon a step further, I would argue. In my research on language learning online, I noted that in social media, friends lists are ‘flat’, and there is no distinction between, for example, a teacher and students. While this can promote a more egalitarian, collaborative rather than teacher-driven environment, it can also cause complications in student-teacher relationships, due to a lack of role distinction and a blurring of boundaries. Some schools have even adopted policies warning teachers against ‘friending’ students.

A similar issue arises when it comes to celebrities. Your Twitter feed – or Facebook, if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to be friended – does not distinguish between those you know in ‘real life’ and those you don’t. Compared with the days of fan mail sent by post, and tabloid newspaper coverage, many celebrities and (highly curated) glimpses into their lifestyles are easier to access and more frequent than ever before. In the 90 months (7.5 years) Kim Kardashian has been a member of Twitter, for example, she has tweeted text or (often) images 22.5 thousand times – an average of over 8 updates each day – making it highly conceivable that, were I to follow Kim, I would receive more updates from her than any of my friends or colleagues who are less frequent users of Twitter, but more comparable to me on socioeconomic (and other!) terms.

Great expectations

Secondly, James argues, the women’s movement has increased comparison and competition between women and men when it comes to employment and other measures, and, generally, has increased expectations of women disproportionately (that is, women are more frequently expected to contribute an income to the household than in the past, but expectations for men to contribute to housekeeping and childrearing have not risen as much).

…without matching opportunities

James concludes by stating that ‘In particular, women and people with low incomes were encouraged to aspire to educational, career and material goals from which they were previously excluded, yet a great many did not feel they obtained ‘enough’. It resulted in a widespread sense of failure, as much among the winners as the losers, including the rich and men’.

The answer

The answer, however, is not to tell people to get back into their boxes, but, James maintains, to accept that zero growth in developed economies ‘is a must if the planet is to survive’. More definitely isn’t always better. Constant growth, at least driven by physical (consumer goods) rather than intellectual property (entertainment, research etc.) is unsustainable given the finite resources of the planet.

Until this is recognised, James suggests looking to Scandinavia, where income equality and gender equality is high, and stereotyped categories of people almost non-existent.

The UN has also released a World Happiness Report, which, while ranking Bhutan only 84th in this global comparison, lends some evidence to James’ idea. All of the top-five nations are in Scandinavia.

Some ideas:

  • All people are of equal value, and generally speaking, most are of equal potential, but we still have a lot of work to do in making opportunities equal. As Rick Riordan says, ‘Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.’
  • An increasing body of evidence suggests that the way you are treated as a child is far more important than your genes in terms of intelligence and mental health. In Finland, it has been shown that if parents and schools start with the assumption that all children have the capacity to do well, and schools are properly resourced, it’s possible to raise achievement significantly across the board.
  • Be conscious of who you compare yourself with, and engage in what James calls ‘healthy patterns of social comparison’. The Danes, for example, enjoy winning at the Olympics and having a successful economy, but do not, James hypothesises, constantly upwardly and downwardly compare their material attributes with others in ways that make them miserable.
  • Manage your exposure. If television or social media or even junk mail leaves you with feelings of dissatisfaction, disengage. Watch the TV shows you enjoy online, without advertising, rather than watching whatever happens to be on the idiot box. Use social media to keep in touch with loved ones rather than to brag about what you’ve bought/eaten/seen or to lust over what others have. Put up a no junkmail sign and save some trees.

Money can’t buy me love

The Beatles were certainly right that money can’t buy love. As James comments, ‘It is a vicious irony that, just when our physical needs were unprecedentedly well catered for and our physical security never greater, in order to achieve this, disruption of our need for stable and lasting bonds has been the price’.

Love thy neighbour

Fewer of us today know our neighbours (I’m certainly on this list, normally residing in an area with very high turnover of residents – I’m ashamed to say that the first time we spoke to one of our neighbours was when they came to borrow our vacuum cleaner – to clean their apartment to move out!) As a result, it’s easy for us to know more about the lives of celebrities and the mega-wealthy who promote their personal lives constantly, than we do about those who share a similar locale, economic background, and other characteristics.

In our increasingly globalised world, it is good to know more about those beyond our immediate surrounds. But it’s also very important that we don’t have a skewed view on the basis of the media we consume. Most of the world is not wearing designer clothes, flaunting brand new cars and flashing diamond watches. If you find yourself making comparisons, make sure they’re at least representative: Global Rich List puts this into perspective.

Even better, stop comparing yourself with the Joneses, the Kardashians, the Takalas, the Kaurs or the Jiangs, and simply consider how wealthy you are.

If you’re seeing to read this, how much do you value your sight? If you’re listening to these words, how much do you value your hearing? Your arms or your legs? (After all, there’s a reason we say something costs ‘an arm and a leg‘) What about your family and friends? Chances are, you can’t even name a figure.

The best things in life aren’t free – they’re priceless.
Where does your country rank on the happiness list?

Today’s featured image is of one of the neighbourhoods we stayed in during our time here in the UK.

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