Keeping up with the Joneses in Suburbia

Hell, yes, we are still trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Hell, yes, we are still trying to keep up with the Joneses.

That damn Jones family!  Why do they have to have everything?  Be so rich and desirable?  Why is their prosperity simultaneously my misery?  Here in suburbia, the Joneses remain the ever elusive ideal and we continue to chase them.  Their beautiful new car, their well manicured lawn, their Harvard-bound children and their fabulous dinner parties.  And you know what?  You will never ever be the Joneses.  It’s time to get off that bus.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” was in fact a comic strip created by “Pop” Momand circa 1920’s America.  It was a parody of American life which depicted the petty jealousies of neighbors to the Jones family, who are mentioned but never actually seen in the strip.  This is fascinating because the idea of the Joneses really is an illusion to all of us.  This was made clear over the past couple months in which a number of our friends picked up and moved, mostly to bigger and better places.  Isn’t that how it always happens, after all?  My husband and I, after viewing these spectacular new houses, sat down in our kitchen and thought, hmm…  Maybe we should move.

Right there.  That’s where it starts.  They have a hot tub.  Don’t we need a hot tub?  They have a gazillion square feet.  Don’t we need a gazillion square feet?  Never mind that we are completely fine in our 1950’s fixer upper and that before this we hadn’t had a moment of dissatisfaction (well maybe a couple but nothing move-worthy).  Plus, our house is paid off, why would we do that?  One simple reason.  Those fucking Joneses.

Dave Goetz’s noteworthy book “Death by Suburb” addresses this topic in a novel way.  He calls various ideals of suburban culture “toxins” and offers “practices” to guide sane living in the ‘burbs.   Goetz talks about leading a “thicker” life, letting go of expectations and relying on faith.  While I did not read the book for it’s faith and church principles, it does have meaning for suburbanites in and out of faith communities.  In Brene Brown’s amazing book “Daring Greatly,” she also talks about how there is a culture of what she calls scarcity, meaning we feel like we can never have enough.  We always want more, and are left feeling culturally and personally inadequate if we don’t.

Now, not everyone feels this way. There are folks like my friend Barbara who don’t seem ride the Jones bus.  But most of us do. In any event, Goetz gives us some suggestions for relief from the rat race.  Instead of seeing yourself as your job or even your stereotype, try to see goodness in the world.  Instead of wanting your neighbor’s life,  he suggests budgeting time to “hang with the poor and broken.”  Instead of thinking that life should be as easy as it is for the Joneses, he suggests we just quit fighting a war that is not winnable.  Both Brown and Goetz suggest silence and gratitude as daily practices to stop “jonesing” for the next purchase. The next high.

When you do begin accumulating all this stuff, what are you supposed to do with it all, anyway?  I recently have been going on a donation blitz, collecting stuff in large bags and toting it to the appropriate drop off site.  This feels good.  And moving, after all, is one giant purge.  There is also something so attractive about the simple life, the pared down existence.  Getting rid of excess.  Being free of material goods.  Letting go of consumerism.  But then, living the thicker life also means not feeling green with envy when that Jones kid gets the lead part in the school play.  And when Mrs. Jones always seems calm and together.  And how they always seem to make time to have a beautiful yard and a devoted relationship.

Oh, and there we go again.  Your brain just went to that place.  Actually, there really is a place in your brain that processes jealousy, and it’s the same place ironically that processes pain.  This may explain why it felt like a dagger when your high school boyfriend cheated on you.  It’s called the ventral striatum and it sits in your prefrontal lobe.  So, as many discoveries in behavioral neuroscience, you can take comfort that it’s your brain causing you to behave this way.  Because the Joneses aren’t going anywhere.  Even if you move.

An so ultimately,  we decided not to move.  We are happy where we are.  No, it’s not the biggest or newest house on the block.  The floors creak and it’s on a steep hill.  At the risk of following the above advice, we are lucky to have this old house, even with it’s quirks and it’s imperfections.  It has been here to come home to through the births of two children, through new jobs and new pets.  Through acquisitions and donations alike.  And plus, moving is a lot of work.

What about you?

So there.

So there.

Keeping up with the Joneses strip from Pop Momand, 1921.

Above image from


8 comments on “Keeping up with the Joneses in Suburbia

  1. Mari Stephenson says:

    And you can use all that money you would spend on a bigger house for vacations and travel with your kids! “Too much house” drains way too many families’ resources. And I think we all know of many unhappy people living in large, fancy homes. The same concept applies to cars too.

    Smaller car + smaller house = less stress and more freedom.

    Thanks for keeping us thinking.

    • Jeanne says:

      i completely agree. Keeping up is hard work so it only makes sense that you’d feel more freedom by backing off.

      It also occurs to me, even the Joneses have Joneses!

  2. Mommy D. says:

    You really need a good excuse to move. To me, it’s downsizing. At this stage in my life, I look forward to less house, less acreage and more time for me.

  3. Jeanne says:

    That sounds wonderful. Good for you!

  4. suburbanlife says:

    About 30 years ago the realtor who had sold us our unfinished log house on 5 acres, which i called “our Eden”, persistedly contacted us in order to try and convince us that because of my husband’s professional position it might be time for us to “move up” in the housing market. He presented us with possible “Fuck You” houses of dimensions and finishes staggering in desirability. I demurred, and instead had my husband build a skookum shed/barn for our goats. We were happy; the goats were happy. We putzed about finishing space in our little spaces, gardened, worked, raised our son, let the goats trim the patch of lawn, enjoyed sunrises, sunsets, all kinds of weather, the flora and fauna residing on our patch of turf. I didn’t desire all the latest and greatest appliances, still don’t. And, life is good. I am happy with the tools and equipment needed for a simple life. A place to live, whether in the suburbs, rural or urban setting,, is simple a spot for us to live within and care-take. We do not “own” it, as our tenure here on earth is merely temporary, as are the things with which we facilitate our doings. What’s to stress about? The “Joneses” are exactly in the same position – in the end the whole social positioning thing is merely a vanity. G

    • Jeanne says:

      Wow, this sounds positively idyllic! I completely agree with your less is more sentiments and only wish I could live that way on a more daily basis. I suppose that’s why I wrote about it, and to hear more from people like you who are able to live simply without feeling like they compromised somehow. Thanks for the words.

  5. dearsuburbia says:

    Love this! It is so liberating to just forget about keeping up with the Joneses. Family, friends gratitude, meditation, art, poetry, music…these keep me focused and happy…even in suburbia. Peace to you.

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