Stuffocation — James Wallman
Usually, around the new year, people come up with all sorts of resolutions. One of them might well be to get rid of all the stuff one doesn’t need. The clothes one has not fit in for years, or the box full of cables that one hasn’t touched in decades.
Decluttering isn’t just limited to physical items; it can also be all the images stored on Google Drive that one never again looks at, or in my case, a disorganized, cluttered telegram messenger and email inbox. I’m proud to report that I managed to delete over 5000 un-needed groups and chats on telegram and finally got to organize my email inbox. Luckily cluttering these didn’t have much impact on the broader environment. However, physical stuff does.
This is very much the argument of “stuffocation.” Stuffocation is the term the author James Wallman has assigned to the condition we in the developed world suffer from. It’s “feeling weighed down by our own excess” and the realization that we could probably live happily without a majority of the goods we own.
As a cultural forecaster, the author dissects the phenomenon of stuffocation and suggests a better way. It’s not — as you might think after watching Tidying up with Marie Kondo — Minimalism.
How did we get here?
We weren’t always suffocating in our stuff. Hoarders on RealityTV are a reasonably recent appearance. It all comes down to materialism and a strategic fostering of throw-away culture. We have plenty of findings from life before our time, including cooking equipment, carts, and of course, buildings. Things were built to last. You’d think this is a good thing. And it is — well, if you’re not constantly trying to increase your GDP. GDP fetishism aside, after the World Wars, developed nations put effort into making people believe that buying stuff will make them happy. The birth of the modern advertising industry.
The first industry to start creating items that would become obsolete relatively quickly was the automotive industry, which created models that would soon be “dated.” Fast forward to today, people queue hours for a new iPhone that isn’t that different from the previous one. Not because the old one doesn’t work.
The system makes us wish for one thing, but do another. It leaves us pinning for the older, simpler version that did the job perfectly well yesterday and still works fine today. But at the same time it tells us about the next, new and improved, better things now available and makes us think about it, lust after it, and buy it.
Capitalist companies benefitting from this rejoice, so might those politicians promising GDP growth and economists. However, it turns out that more stuff isn’t better for us.
What’s the issue?
Sometimes stuff can be directly lethal. Flashover is the moment when so much heat has built up in a space that things start to combust. A fire that has flashed over will kill anyone in two seconds, so it’s best to stay far away. Flashovers used to happen 28–29 minutes after a fire had broken out. Nowadays, because we got more stuff, flashovers happen faster. On average, it takes just 3 -5 minutes from when you can still save things to deadly heat.
Of course, fires might be an extreme case of stuff gone wrong, but there is more to it.
Stuff doesn’t equal happiness.
Now that most of us live a reasonably comfortable life in the Western world, there is a shift to thinking about well-being. This is mirrored by countries trying to measure their citizens’ well-being and make it part of their political agenda. And it turns out that materialism seems unable to improve our overall well-being. Worse, it can make millions feel joyless, anxious, and sometimes even worse — depressed.
There’s even some excellent concept from economics that might explain why more isn’t more: The law of diminishing marginal utility. What sounds like economics word salad describes what we’ve all experienced. Let’s say you love dumplings, just like me, and you’ve got a lot of them in front of you.
Which one tastes the best (gives you the most utility in economist jargon)? I bet it’s the first one. From then on, you still enjoy your dumplings and continue happily eating until you hit a point where you’re full. On the above chart, that’s around seven dumplings down. Continuing after that will result in negative utility (discomfort).
So more isn’t more. What now? Should we throw everything that doesn’t spark joy away? Kind of. Enter:
Instead of advocating for Minimalism, which the author doesn’t see as replacing our current value system, he proposes focusing on experiences, therefore Experientalism.
There are good reasons why. You might feel good about it for some time when buying stuff, but that quickly wears off. Not so with experiences. You will well remember the great times you had while in university — sometimes tinted through what psychologists call positive re-interpretation.
Experiences are also harder to compare than material goods. It’s easy to say that you have the better handbag because one is from a brand and the other isn’t. Not so easy when comparing a short weekend in a new city with a festival visit or time spent with the family.
What’s more, while indeed, we all know people who identify themselves by the stuff they own — and sorry to break it to them: That does not make you more attractive — most of us are more likely to see experiences as contributing to our identities.
Lastly, experiences mean we do something, and often together with other humans, bringing us closer. We’re social, after all.
In a nutshell, experientalism means going for experiences rather than for stuff. It doesn’t mean not buying things at all, but it suggests that we consider buying goods that will enable us to have experiences. For people like me, that could be books, for others, a musical instrument, a wet suit to go diving, a camping van…
“If you want to be happy, you should spend your money, time, and energy on experiences rather than material possessions.”
And if you hear the word experience and think of the grand experiences that cost a lot of money, that isn’t what is meant. Even though, arguably, many of the case studies of people in the book who made the switch seem to be on the higher middle/upper-class level.
Experiences can be simple things such as going for a walk in the sun, meeting your friends for a drink, reading a book by yourself while enjoying a glass of wine (guilty all the time), learning a new skill, writing, playing an instrument, anything you want.
A few closing thoughts
Overall, James Wallman’s book is a great read full of interesting statistics that I can highly recommend to anyone questioning materialism or just wondering why buying stuff doesn’t feel as good as it used to. I’d rank it under books I will re-read.
Experientalism is a solution that works within the system to make us happier without negating stuff entirely.
Yet, one challenge for experientalists could be Social Media. It makes experiences more visible and contributes to our status. In that sense, spending a weekend on a yacht might be the new Louis Vuitton handbag. The only way out of that for individuals is to renounce the idea of competitive individualism.
And I don’t often quote Peter Thiel because I am not fond of his views on specific issues, but he said it best in this case. The context might have been a business book (From zero to one), yet it also applies to being an experientalist.
“So much of people’s identities got wrapped up in winning the competition, they lost sight of what was important and what was valuable.”
We’re all different, and so are our experiences. Go enjoy what you love doing, and don’t compare your life with the seemingly perfect ones on Social Media.
Of course, Stuffocation isn’t a psychology book — for that, the author would probably need an entire second book.