Materialism is hurting our health and happiness. Instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, we are stifled by them. Having more stuff is no longer better, it’s worse.
We are in the grip of stuffocation. That’s the conclusion of James Wallman, in his book by the same name. The good news: the age of materialism is on the decline, to be superseded by an exciting new age of experientialism.
Experientialism, as espoused by Wallman, involves finding happiness, living a more meaningful life and expressing status through experiences, rather than material possessions.
Stuffocation provides an entertaining exploration and analysis of research from the fields of anthropology, psychology and economic history on the predicament we are in, how we got here and how a focus on experiences over things can make us happier. But it’s not just all stats and facts, woven throughout the book are the stories of everyday people seeking to live less materialistic ways. Heavy meets light in a charming and convincing way.
Stuffocation is not a how-to book – although it does offer seven habits of a highly effective experientialist and recommends three steps towards implementing experientialism in your own life.
Much of the book is devoted to making the case for the rise of experientialism. Applying diffusion of innovation theory (he’s a trend forecaster), Wallman identifies emerging alternatives to materialism and evaluates each in turn against a set of criteria designed to predict whether they will catch on and go mainstream.
Wallman explores and dismisses three alternatives:
- Minimalism (intentionally living with few possessions) – described as following the same road, just with the brakes on hard. Conclusion: too negative.
- Voluntary simplicity (a scaled-down, slower-paced life) – taking a sharp turn and going off road. Conclusion: too hard.
- The medium chill (consciously enjoying what you have, without striving for better and more) – chugging along the same road. Conclusion: not aspirational enough.
There is a theme common to all three alternatives – life shouldn’t be measured in terms of material possessions; it’s experiences that count. And with the rise of social media enabling experiences to be easily captured and shared with others, experiences count more than ever. Wallman argues that, thanks to Facebook and Instagram, experiences can now fulfil our primal human desire to display fitness markers to our peers. Conspicious consumption of experiences is on the rise, ushering in a new age of experientialism.
Can experientialism save us?
Doing stuff, rather than buying stuff, as the way to happiness – experientialism is a promising concept. Wallman’s summary of the evidence convinces me of both the superiority of experientialism over materialism, in terms of increasing happiness, and that we are, indeed, heading into a new era. This is all great, but is it enough?
Unfortunately, no. I don’t think Wallman’s experientialism can free us from all that ails us. While Wallman places materialism at the heart of the problem, I lay the blame at consumerism. These two terms are frequently interchanged; however, consumerism is not limited to the drive to consume ever-increasing amounts of goods, it can equally be applied to experiences. I see the endless pursuit of more at the source of our ills, not just the endless pursuit of more stuff.
The great strength of experientialism by Wallman’s analysis – how compatible it is with how we live today – I see as also it’s great weakness. Experiences are ripe for commodification and co-option into sustaining consumer capitalism. Experiences may make us happier than things, but experimentalism is likely to be just another shade of consumerism. The focus simply shifts from having to doing, from Keeping Up With The Joneses to #keepingupwiththejoneses.
What’s wrong with consumerism? Consumerism demands a constant drive for more, and more, and more. In a consumerist society, it’s never okay to be happy with what you have. Enough is never enough. Precious resources are poured into ensuring we feel simultaneously dissatisfied, inadequate and entitled. This, as much as the collective piles of crap in our garages, affects our health and happiness and is something that experientialism alone does not address.
I’m not saying not to go forth and be an experientialist. Just be aware of the consumerist baggage that goes with it and be mindful that getting back to basics may serve you just as well as chasing your bucket list.
Do you feel like you’re suffocating? Which stuff do you think impacts most on your health and happiness? If you’ve made the decision to focus on experiences over stuff, what were your first steps? What benefits have you gained?