Christmas is peak ‘stuff’ time in our household. We throw away more than usual, and generally have a bunch of new things to find places for at the end of it. I’m not complaining, but it’s an interesting time to read a book like Stuffocation – Living More with Less.
Stuffocation, as the name suggests, is about the broadest of first world problems – too much stuff. “Instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, we feel stifled by them” says James Wallman. “Instead of thinking of more in positive terms, as we once did, we now think more means more hassle, more to manage, and more to think about. In our busy, cluttered lives more is no longer better.” Not everyone feels that way, but the majority appear to. Surveys show that two out of three of us think they’d be better off if they lived more simply.
Now, there are plenty of books, websites and campaigns about stuff and consumerism. Stuffocation is different, because it sees a wider cultural shift in progress. James Wallman is a cultural forecaster by profession, advising businesses on future trends. He sees, and the evidence supports it, a shift away from materialist values in the West, and a growing recognition that lived experiences are more valuable.
“As more people realize that more stuff does not equal more happiness, but that the best place to find status, identity, meaning, and happiness is in experiences, we will witness the old age of materialism give way, I believe, to a new age of experientialism.”
That’s a big change, one that will work itself out over 50 years or more, but it’s well under way. It’s there on Facebook in the collections of friends’ holiday photos, or in the discussion around alternative progress indicators. You can see it in the sell-out crowds at Secret Cinema’s Back to the Future screenings. It’s in the rise of ‘bucket lists’, books of wines to taste before you die, in spa sessions and track days and other experience-based gifts.
And it’s no bad thing. There are a number of reasons why experiences are more satisfying that possessions. Our memories tend to tweak them over time, usually accentuating the positive. Things that were miserable or scary at the time become funny stories to share. It’s harder to compare experiences than possessions, so we’re less likely to feel inferior. Experiences all contribute to who we are, so they become part of our identity in ways that our possessions never could. And experiences bring people together and foster community.
The book explores all of this through a series of potential solutions to ‘stuffocation’, looking at specific individuals or families that have tried something different. There are some neat examples and good ideas, like the couple who packed all their stuff into a spare room to see what it was like to live without it. There are minimalists and downsizers. The tiny home movement get a mention, and voluntary simplicity. I liked the Grist writer who pursues ‘the medium chill’, a part time ethic of family time and contentment that sounds a lot like my own lifestyle.
There are a lot of interweaving cultural trends to investigate too, from social media to the wellbeing debate, and it’s all set in an international context with an eye on the rising middle classes in the developing world.
There’s a lot to admire about the book. Wallman has made the effort to meet the people he’s writing about and listen to their stories. He writes about some fairly extraordinary life decisions and is not afraid to critique them, but always does so with respect and balance.
I particularly liked the way the author anticipates potential objections, and repeatedly addressed the doubts that were brewing in my mind. Just as I found myself thinking ‘but this isn’t for everyone’, or ‘these people just sound like hippies’, the next paragraph would start with ‘maybe you are thinking…’ or ‘it is easy to laugh at…’ and then explore some nuance or alternative angle that shows why it’s worth thinking about a little more.
There are a couple of problems too. One is that, like many books on this sort of thing, examples and case studies do tend towards extremes – people who sell all their possessions and move to a cabin to chop their own wood. That’s partly inevitable, since they may well have written a book or a blog about it and that makes them easier to find. And of course which would you rather read about – a guy who’s reduced his possessions to 5,431, or a guy who’s slimmed them to 47? Wallman acknowledges these problems, but it still grated occasionally, especially when it involves people with the financial means to safely experiment with simplicity. There’s a story about a restaurant owner who’s downsized and now runs his business from a beach in Bali, for example. That’s great, but what about his own staff of waiters and pot washers? The stories of people ‘escaping it all’ are more interesting, but the stories of people just striking a better balance are far more useful. Perhaps that’s just an inherent issue with writing about consumerism, so I’ll let Wallman off that one.
Another potential problem is that Wallman’s vision of experientialism is, in his words, “a solution inside the system.” It’s still consumerism, just with a different focus. “Most experientialists will continue to play their part in ‘have more by spending more’ consumerism, and do their bit for growth” he says. This will be reassuring to readers wary of big revolutionary ideas, but not to those looking for something that more fundamentally challenges our economic system and its growth imperative.
It’s the enduring consumerism that proves to be my most persistent doubt about the book. I’m not sure that it drills down quite far enough. To me, there’s another layer below our materialism, and that’s a culture of competitive individualism. Stuff is unsatisfying, but if we just swap conspicuous consumption of stuff for conspicuous consumption of experiences, we’re not much better off. We’ll be a little happier, but I don’t think it gets to the bottom of the problem. Happiness is found in other people, in giving, in being part of something bigger than ourselves. You could tick off all ‘100 things to do before you die’ and still be unsatisfied, if your only purpose in life is your own happiness. That’s been my own experience, it runs through wisdom literature and religious teaching, and it’s also one of the conclusions from studies like Richard Layard’s and Action for Happiness.
Stuffocation doesn’t deny any of that, but I think the idea of ‘experientialism’ obscures the fact that not all experiences are created equal.
So, I have further questions, but there’s no doubt that Wallman is onto something here, and it makes Stuffocation well worth reading. If you’ve come across ideas like Collaborative Consumption, new materialism, or the ‘Cinderella economy‘, you’ll know that there is a post-materialist transition going on already. James Wallman is tapping into that, but with an angle that I haven’t read elsewhere. It’s fresh, thought-provoking, and opens up some promising new ways of thinking and talking about consumerism.