THE ANTI-CONSUMERS

One family says enough is enough.

 

THE MILLERS Tim, Kym, Laugan, Sage & Jenna

IN JANUARY 2007, the scientific journal Neuron offered an explanation for why some people obsessively fill their lives with stuff. Apparently these super-consumers—of which I am one—have an overactive nucleus accumbens, that part of our brains commonly known as “the pleasure center.” Covered with receptors that attract dopamine—a hormone and neurotransmitter that imparts feelings of bliss—the nucleus accumbens can go into overdrive in response to certain stimuli. Why that is, science cannot precisely explain.

For me, once upon a time, that stimuli could have been something as simple as the shiny glaze of a midnight-blue flowerpot that I just had to have for our deck. A pair of black leather boots with stiletto heels slightly taller than those of the three pairs I already owned could compel me to whip out my credit card with nary a hint of trepidation. In fact, by the early 2000s, I had become such a successful consumer that our family joined the nearly one out of every 10 households in America that funneled their material overflow into a rented storage unit. My nucleus accumbens, I now know, was largely responsible for making me feel positively giddy at the prospect of buying and owning that perfect thing. Which, it turns out, I never actually found.

What the Neuron article did not address is whether anything could be done about this compulsion. In 2003, I endeavored to take the matter into my own hands. And while my solution—a wild family experiment of anti-consumption that lasted for an entire year—would not likely hold up to the rigors of scientific testing, I can report that it is possible, if not to reprogram the nucleus accumbens entirely, then to at least calm it down.

The night I tried to convince my family of the merits of my “Year Without Buying” plan, in which we would purchase only edible items for a solid 12 months, did not go well. My husband, Tim, remained silent, my pre-teen, Jenna, just looked stunned and 4-year-old Laugan continued playing with her dinner. Only our middle daughter, Sage, was fully in my camp. “Think how much we would save!” she exclaimed. But I was quick to point out that the experiment was not so much about saving money as about discovering what would happen to our psyches if we reined in our desire for objects altogether.

After Tim noted that lightbulbs would be hard to live without, we entered into a month-long negotiation period, during which we debated which among the non-edible items were absolutely necessary to buy. Deemed “depletables,” these included such things as batteries, shampoo, soap, toothpaste, deodorant and medicine—anything that could be used up completely. We agreed that services—such as travel, house-cleaning and repairs—were allowed, but if something actually broke completely, we couldn’t replace it.

Assembled around the dinner table on Friday, January 31, 2003, I initiated a vote: Would we or wouldn’t we commit? Trying to sound confident, I voted “yes.” Next came Sage with a resounding “yes” and Tim, who delivered a more hesitant “yes.” Jenna, taking a brief glance around the room as if to say goodbye to all that was dear to her, concurred with even less enthusiasm, and finally Laugan gave her approval—but only after we assured her that candy was part of the “edible” category.