Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Learned Helplessness, Depression, and Changing Your Environment

You needn't spend money to improve your life.  But spending money can act as a temporary anti-depressant - and marketing types know this.

I harp a lot about mental hygiene in this blog.   Depressed people make excellent consumers.  It is all-too-easy to get "down" and then think, "screw saving, let's go spend it all now!" or at least spend part of it.  It reminds me of this old joke:
She:  "Whenever I am down in the dumps, I buy a new hat!" 
He:  "So that's where you get them!"
It is a silly vaudevillian joke, but it illustrates how some people use "shopping" as a means of fighting off depression.  And let's face it, it is exciting to buy something new, pick something out, and unwrap the package when you get home.

And with online ordering, I think this is even moreso.  You get excited about selecting the product online - the initial shopping experience.  Then, UPS sends you updates every ten minutes about how your product is being packed, shipped, and finally, "out for delivery".   In that regard, I think Amazon has the wrong idea with this same-day delivery - half the excitement is in the waiting.  And good Skinner box should make the reward more and more infrequent.   But I digress.

(I digress further:  I recently ordered a new chair mat on Amazon, as the old one was for carpeted floor, and we finally finished the wood flooring in the office.  I looked on Amazon and eBay and the best price I could find for the 46" x 60" mat from E.S. Robbins (a woman-owned company!) was $55 delivered.   I get a notice from UPS that I am getting a delivery from Costco tomorrow - what gives?  We don't belong to Costco.  I go to the Costco website and the same chair mat is $45, including free shipping.  With a couple of clicks of a mouse, a "seller" on Amazon made ten bucks.  Nice work if you can get it, and why Amazon doesn't always have the best prices, and in fact, rarely does. Lesson learned - need to check Costco next time around!)

Getting rid of old, broken, and worn-out things and getting anew is sort of fun.   Throw away that old shirt with holes in it and get a new, more stylish one!

Recently, we have been remodeling our house ("house polishing" - the second step of retirement) by replacing the worn carpeting in the bedrooms with hardwood floors - to match the rest of the house.   It is hard work, but the result look pretty good.  And by the way, a lot of this stuff isn't optional.  Carpeting has to be replaced every 10-15 years.  Houses need to be repainted (inside) about every 10-15 years.  Appliances last, well, 10-15 years.  Funny how that works, eh?   So after nearly 15 years of living in this house, a lot needs to be renewed.

And a lot needs to be thrown out, too.  In moving everything from each room to install the flooring and paint, we realize we've accumulated a lot of "stuff" over the years.  And a lot of it is just junk, or ugly, or worn out, or whatever.   So when putting each room back together, we are putting in less "stuff" and selling, donating, giving away, or throwing away the rest.   And this, like shopping, has a liberating effect on the brain, as it allows you to control and manipulate your environment - and improve it - and thus stave off learned helplessness.

One reason why hoarders are so mentally ill is that they feel overwhelmed by their possessions.  They can't bear to part with a paper clip (that needs to be sorted by size and color!) but on the other hand, they are literally buried (sometimes fatally) in stacks of junk.   Our brains are programmed with two incompatible routines at the same time.  The first tells us to save things, as that sharpened rock may be handy for skinning a hide or killing the caveman who attacks you.   The second tells us to cast off unused things, to travel light, and to have a clean and organized workspace.   Each urge of ours contradicts the other - it turns out that holding two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time is not unusual, but the norm.

In returning each bedroom to use, we are putting art back on the walls and realizing we are art hoarders.   Not that we have fancy artwork worth thousands of dollars, but a lot of prints, paintings, photos, and even framed posters and whatnot.  It is nice to have things to look at, but sometimes, it gets overwhelming and looks "busy".   So we are using this as an opportunity to cull the herd, to so speak,

And it is a good feeling.  There is nothing so nice as to have a clean, well-lighted place, or a room somewhere with a comfy chair.

In recent years, a lady has been making a lot of money on television telling people to throw things away.  She promotes the Japanese aesthetic of minimalism, which is also the aesthetic of "mid-century modern" Bauhaus architecture.   Less is more and clutter is bad for your soul.

In a way, this is practical advice, too.  If you own something and can't find it in all of your clutter, it is like not owning it at all.   If you go into your attic, basement, closet, or even a drawer and "discover" something you forgot you owned, chances are, it means you own too much "stuff".

And this isn't hard to do.   Many here on the island "downsize" by selling their home up North.  Instead of selling off all the furniture from their house, they move it down here and cram it in place.  People put bookcases and dressers in the hallway.  Cram small bedrooms with furniture to the point where you can barely walk in.   Closets get jammed with clothes that will never be worn.  Garages are full of boxes, while expensive cars sit out in the hot sun.   People bring their snow shovels with them.   I know, because I have one, given to me by a neighbor.  Why I took it, is beyond me.

It is hard to give up things, but then again, it doesn't cost you anything, and if you sell things, you can realize cash, or donate and maybe make a small deduction.   But unlike buying things, getting rid of things doesn't actually cost you money, and the net effect is the same - it staves off depression and learned helplessness by allowing you to manipulate your environment.

When you sit in a house full of "stuff" and do little more than fill it up with more stuff, you are not really improving your environment.   In fact, once the rush of buying something fades away, you end up even more depressed than before, as your house full of junk gets fuller - and your wallet a little emptier.