We are always tempted by what’s new. We want the newest cameras, the newest cars, the newest computers, the newest smartphones, the newest tablets, and more.
When does all this madness end? In this article I share some of my experiences succumbing to “G.A.S.” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and some techniques I have learned from the philosophy of Stoicism to overcome it.
The Hedonic Treadmill
Psychologists call the need to constantly have more and more the “hedonic treadmill.” That is, when we buy something nice–we are first satisfied with it but then our standards increase. Imagine a treadmill– when you first step on it you go at a certain speed. Then it starts speeding up–faster and faster. Before you know it, you can’t keep up and you become exhausted and perhaps even collapse from the out-of-control speed.
For example, imagine the first time you ever bought your camera. It was brand spanking-new. It has the highest number of megapixels, the sharpest lens, the largest aperture lens, the best high-ISO capabilities, fastest autofocus, and more. That becomes your new standard. You love your camera for a while, then you start seeing the newer and sexier cameras (with more megapixels and unnecessary bells and whistles)–but you get tempted. Now you are no longer satisfied with the camera you own, and want to upgrade to something better.
If you use the analogy of cars– let’s say you start off as a freshman in college. When you get your first car–anything will do. It can be falling apart but as long as it has four wheels and gets you from point A to point B, you are happy. But once you get a nice job, you end up upgrading to a nice standard car (let’s say a BMW 3-series). You first love all the new features,comfort, and speed of your BMW. But soon, you get used to it. Now that is your new ‘baseline.’ After a few years, you no longer are satisfied with your BMW, and want to upgrade to a bigger and better version (let’s say the BMW 5-series or a high-end Mercedes). Of course the madness never ends– sooner or later you will want your own private jet.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman studied this “hedonic treadmill effect” and discovered that after people purchase new items, they first feel satisfied. Then quickly, they refer to their base-line of happiness and well-being. So whenever you buy a new camera or piece of technology, you quickly get used to it and start hunting for the new best thing.
My personal experiences with the Hedonic Treadmill
I find myself falling victim to the “hedonic treadmill” quite a bit. For example, I am typing this article on my nearly two-year old 11” Macbook Air. It is perfect in all regards, in terms of the size, weight, power, and portability. However I hear the new version is coming out soon– with a faster processor, longer battery life, better graphics card, and screen. Now I no longer am satisfied with my laptop, and rather than appreciating what I have– I am hunting for the newest and best.
The same happens with cameras. I currently own the Leica MP, hands-down the “best” film rangefinder that money can buy. Although I am satisfied with it now and have no plans of upgrading, I remember wanting to get a custom Leica MP with a .58 viewfinder (which lets me see more of the frame)–rather than the .72 viewfinder I currently had. All this stress for a very small (and relatively insignificant upgrade).
Even when new cameras come out, I become tempted. I remember when the Leica Monochrom and the Sony RX-1 came out, I was intruiged– and suddenly my gear didn’t feel adequate enough. Fortunately I was able to shrug off those feelings of “G.A.S.” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).
My experiences with G.A.S.
GAS gets the worst of me as well. I started photography innocently enough on a little Canon point-and-shoot, then when that camera wasn’t “good enough” as it couldn’t produce “bokeh” (I had no idea what bokeh was at the time).
I did a ton of searching around the web, and discovered that I “needed” a DSLR with a prime lens (to shoot wide open). After scrapping all the savings I had from my student job, I ended up getting a Canon Rebel XT (350d) with the 50mm f/1.8 lens. It was amazing the first half year I had it, and then upon discovering gear forums (the worst addiction one can have) I thought it wasn’t adequate enough. Everyone on the gear forums suggested if people were really serious about photography, they “needed” a full-frame camera to get “creamier” bokeh (once again, why is everyone on the web obsessed with bokeh?)
Anyways, I end up taking out some student loans to pay for college–and realized I had some extra money lying around. Of course I got the Canon 5D, and then realized that my glass wasn’t “adequate enough.” People would suggest that if I had a full-frame, I needed “real glass”– or what was the point? I ended up buying a ton of lenses I never ended up using that much (Canon 70-200 f/4L, Sigma 105mm Macro lens, etc) and the 35mm f/2, 24mm f/2.8 (not L prime lenses, but I couldn’t afford them).
At the end of the day, I ended up shooting 99% of my shots with the Canon 5D and the 35mm f/2. So I ended up selling the rest to pay for my loans and credit cards, and shot contently with that for about 2 years.
Of course, we can never have enough. I then started getting into street photography, and discovered that the “best” camera for street photography was a Leica. After all, all the masters used it!
I then began lusting after the Leica M9– and swore to myself once I got it, I would never want/need/purchase another camera in my life. I would scheme how I could save up the $7000 for the body (whore myself with credit card loans, selling off my car, etc) and even an additional $3000 for the lens (God gave us two kidneys for a reason).
Fast-forward after graduating college, I started working my first full-time job and started saving up money. I then got laid off my job about a year of service, and had some extra cash from my stock options and other savings. Of course I had student loans and credit card bills to still pay off, but like a fool I thought that my camera was a priority. Therefore I ended up getting the Leica M9 with a half-loan from my loving mom– (I want to share how much I love her, and that I have also paid her back in full). I also thought it would be a marriage that would last forever.
I was wrong. The marriage only ended up about half a year.
Once again, I stepped onto the hedonic treadmill, and even the M9 wasn’t good enough. I had the older 35mm f/1.4 Summilux lens–but everyone told me how the new ASPH version was far better. This contributed to more G.A.S.
I also went to Tokyo, and got convinced by my buddies to start shooting film. After my good friend Todd gave me his Leica M6 as a present (I have awesome friends) the Leica M9 started collecting dust on my shelf. I ended up selling the Leica M9, and wanting a backup, bought a mint second-hand Leica MP from my buddy Bellamy. I sold the M9 for around $5000, and got the MP for ~$3600, using the rest to pay off my credit cards. I also ended up trading the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux for a smaller 35mm f/2 Summicron (I preferred the smaller size and weight).
Even now that I have the Leica MP, the madness never stops. Like everyone else, I get tempted by all the new digital cameras that Leica comes out with (the Leica Monochrom, M, RX-1). Also even though I have found some solace shooting film (film never gets outdated, because it is already outdated) there is another bag of G.A.S. in film. Compact cameras, medium-format cameras, large-format cameras, the list goes on.
I am happy to say I have consolidated my gear down to my Leica MP, 35mm f/2 Summicron lens (the only lens I own), Contax T3 (film point and shoot for snapshots) and the Ricoh GRD V (got it for free from Ricoh and use it to mostly take photos of my food and friends).
I still all of my personal work on film–but once again, GAS will probably get the best of me later. But I try to remind myself of the techniques below.
Note: Also some people have shared it is easy to fight GAS because I own a Leica. However note, the madness never ends (the list of collector Leicas going up to $10,000+ doesn’t end).
Fighting the “Hedonic treadmill” in our lives is a constant battle. We are continuously bombarded by advertisements on the web, the newspaper, radio, and TV that tempt us to buy stuff we don’t really need.
However whenever I get tempted, I read this quote by philosopher Seneca:
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” – Seneca
Below are some other techniques I have learned from the philosophy of Stoicism to be grateful for what I have:
1. Desire what you already own
One simple and effective way to be content with what you have– is desiring things you already own, rather than wanting things that you don’t own:
In “Letters from a Stoic” Seneca shares this insight:
“Men cease to possess all things the moment they desire all things for their own.”
Take a look at that camera that you currently own. Rather than thinking of the shortcomings that your camera has– focus on the positive things that you love about it. Love how it feels in your hand, the familiarity you have with its controls, and the image quality or autofocusing capabilities of it.
Surely no camera is perfect–every camera has its own pros and cons. Rather than focusing on the cons, focus on the pros. Even the most expensive and “best” camera for street photography (the Leica) lacks autofocus (while even the most basic cameras have).
2. Imagine losing what you have
Did you ever have an experience in which you accidentally misplaced your wallet– and thought you lost it? Your heart starts racing, and you think about the extra cash you had (let’s say $100) and imagine all the things you could have done with it. You become overwhelmed with regret, and full of “what if’s” (what could I have done with that $100?) Perhaps paid off some of my credit card debt, bought some more film, or filled up my car with gas? You also think of all the unnecessary stress you will have to face canceling all of your credit cards and ID’s, and having to get new ones.
Then you find your wallet (where you stupidly left it) and then comes a huge rush of relief. You catch your breath again, and you thank God (or whatever higher being you believe in) for blessing you. You tell yourself you will always be grateful for having your wallet–and never be so careless again with it.
The same can go with your camera. I once accidentally left my Leica in my camera bag at a Starbucks, and walked two blocks away before I noticed that I didn’t have my camera bag with me (that feeling of being naked without your camera bag on your shoulder). My heart then raced, my adrenaline shot through the roof, and I rushed back to the Starbucks–thinking the worst-case scenario (losing my $3500 Leica MP, and $3000 35mm f/2 sum micron lens– that is a ton of money).
I then found my bag, sitting there– and I raised up my hands like Rocky like a champion. I was so relieved, and suddenly I began to appreciate my Leica so much more. (The funny thing is once I first got my Leica I was overjoyed, but the feeling wears out after a while. I started to feel like owning a Leica was ‘whatever.’)
Vividly imagine yourself losing your camera. Imagine leaving it at a Starbucks (if you actually have good taste in coffee–imagine a nicer cafe). Then you walk out for a few blocks–and remember you left it inside. You rush back, and then you discover your bag is gone. You ask the baristas if they saw it, and they shrug their shoulders and say no. You sit down in an empty chair, hunch over, and start crying.
You then start remembering how much you loved your camera and appreciated it. Flash-backs from when you first purchased your camera come back vividly to your mind. You re-live your initial excitement that you had with your camera. You then put up a little prayer to God and ask him that you will do anything to get it back.
Now open up your eyes– and your camera is chilling by your side. How much more relieved would you feel? You certainly wouldn’t take it for granted anymore.
Practice this technique every once in a while (especially when you lust after a new camera) and it will help bring clarity to your situation.
3. Despise luxury
One of the things that I despise the most is luxury. As Seneca states: “Luxury made the soul a bondsman to the body.” Even the people of Seneca’s time (the ancient Romans) were tempted by luxury items (luxurious purple robes, gold-plated ceilings, fine ivory tables, and marble swimming pools). The tempt of luxury isn’t a modern invention–it goes way back.
What is so bad about luxury anyways? Well, first of all not everyone can afford luxury. And if you can’t afford it (but want it) it will make you bitter. Think of Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes:
“Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked, ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.’ People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.”
However once again–let’s say you can own luxury items. In the photography world, a totally useless lens (and pure luxury item) is the Leica .95 Noctilux Lens. It it the epitome of the online photography world’s obsession with bokeh.
I have used the lens, and it is very nicely built and does take good photos. But certainly not $11,000 worth. And not only that, but when shooting wide-open at .95, it is impossible to get anything in focus. Get the eye in focus, and the eyelashes are out of focus. Did I mention how heavy it is? Everyone I know who has owned it had an amazing time shooting at .95 for a week or two, then they soon realize how much of a pain in the ass it is to carry around (it weighs 1.5 pounds or 700g). The novelty wears off, then people end up selling it.
This is the same with buying any sort of uber-expensive or rare “collectible” lenses. It is pretty much a luxury item– or “men’s jewelry” as I have heard it called.
And once again, even having the nicest luxury goods won’t make you satisfied. You become a slave to your possessions
and keep running on that “Hedonic Treadmill”.
Learn to not covet, but despise luxury. Beam in simple and functional things. Luxury items are mostly there to signal to others how rich and ‘successful’ you are. But there will always be someone richer and more successful than you– so what is the point? The road to luxury is only a road of ruin and depression.
4. Don’t envy others
As humans, we are social beings–and we constantly compare ourselves to others. In-fact, ‘wealth’ is a relative term. It can only be used in comparison to other people.
In “The Bed of Procrustes” (a book of quotes and aphorisms by Nassim Taleb) he writes cleverly:
“The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor; the fastest way to become poor is to socialize with the rich.”
Therefore know that wealth is relative– and one of the ways to become more satisfied with what you have is to not envy what others have.
In “Letters from a Stoic” Seneca gives three practical pieces of advice how to avoid envy from others:
1. Don’t expose yourself to the public view
In terms of not exposing yourself to the public view, you won’t see all the fancy cameras and material things that others have. Now I am not saying become a hermit–but try to avoid certain social functions where you might get tempted to become envious of others. In a practical sense, don’t hang out with gear-heads, or people obsessed with cameras. They will only fuel your G.A.S. even more.
2. Don’t boast of your possessions
If you don’t boast of your possessions you benefit in two ways: first of all, you don’t look like an asshole. Secondly, if you don’t boast of your possessions, you won’t be tempted to compare your possessions with others. This is a great tip I think everyone should practice in everyday life.
3. Enjoy your things privately
If you enjoy your things privately, you won’t compare the things you own to other things. You appreciate it for what it is, in a more objective sense. Imagine the camera you own right now. Sure it may be a year or two outdated, but imagine how amazed photographers from 100 years would have been with it. Autofocus??? ISO over 6400??? Digital???
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” – Socrates
I write this article not from the position of that of an enlightened material-hating saint, but as someone who also regularly suffers from the “hedonic treadmill” and from G.A.S. But I hope that my experiences and the words of wisdom from the ancient Stoics can help bring some more tranquility and contentment in your life.
If you want to learn more about how to be content in your life, I highly recommend Leo Babauta’s “A Guide to Practical Contentment” on ZenHabits as well as his free E-Book “The Little Book of Contentment.” Also some great quotes on minimalism and contentment here.
In the video below, I talk a bit about the ideas expressed above about being grateful for what you have:
How do you find contentment in your everyday life when you are tempted by the newest and greatest things? Share your experiences and tips in the comments below!