Clear clutter

Are you stuffocating? Is experientialism the answer?

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.

Are you suffocating? Is experimentalism the answer? Minimalism, Decluttering, Stuffocation, Experientialism, James Wallman

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 The good news: the age of materialism is on the decline, to be superseded by an exciting new age of experientialism.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?






  • Polly Unsaturated
    March 17, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Great review! I read this book a couple of years ago and it really summed up everything we were feeling as a family at the time. Two years down the track I do see that some of your points about experientialism being just another form of consumerism are correct – and Wallman himself acknowledges that this is the way it needs to be for the capitalist system to survive (which he believes is a necessity). For example, we’ve just invested in mountain bikes and gear for all five of us – when really we should be investing this money in our still-not-done renovation. Renovating the house will make us happy, but using those bikes to get out and spend time together as a family will make us happier. And will create the memories that my kids will look back on fondly (I hope!).

    I’ve also found my kids are now totally blase about experiences – in the same way they would be about, say, another box of lego. We give experiences instead of gifts for Christmas and birthdays, and it feels like we have to keep making them bigger and better to even register on the ‘coolness’ scale. Or perhaps it’s just the pressure we’re putting on ourselves – given Mr 10 declared last night the thing he wants most in the world is to sit in a spa pool at night. The lesson I’ve learned is that for experientialism to work for us, we ensure we’re always focusing on the ‘spending time with people we love’ bit and the ‘doing things we love’ bit, rather than whether our experiences will look good on Facebook or impress the Joneses at the next dinner party.

  • Yarrow Morgan
    June 11, 2017 at 7:47 am

    This reminds me off a great anecdote. Two guys were at a book party for a really hot author, and one asked the other if he, also an author, was jealous. He said, No, I have something he will never have.” His friend asked what it was and he answered “Enough”.

  • Nicole
    October 29, 2017 at 6:18 am

    3 years ago, our youngest graduated from high school, and we loaded a moving van. It took one more move (and thus plenty of “minimizing”) to find home, but now settled, we are each working part time jobs and trying to experience our new geography. The idea was that we would move to a place we would like to vacation (and family would like to visit), enjoying it and its “off-season” and getting to know the local experiences as, well, locals. We don’t have to go anywhere else to have experiences like watching the sunsets or stars (free), kayaking (cheap used boats so far) or birdwatching(already had the binocs, bought a book, could join a club). We are delighted by the seasonal changes and the small moments that catch us by surprise and sometimes take our breath away. What remains to be seen is if this is sustainable, income wise, and whether these simple joys fade to “mundane” over time. We are both out of our personal elements and I hope discovering the history, ecology, and trying to decipher local politics of this area will keep us happily engaged for many years. Curiosity and a good partner help.

    • Amy @ More Time Than Money
      October 29, 2017 at 7:56 am

      Sounds fantastic. I can’t remember the quote exactly, but it sounds like you have designed a life you don’t need to escape from.


Leave a Reply