Stuffocation was one of the final books I bought last December before I decided to start this blog and put myself in book-buying lockdown. I have always had a particularly difficult relationship with shopping, which I have a habit of turning to in times of stress. Following the deaths of my parents a few years ago, it got out of control and I was obviously purchasing ‘stuff’ in a misguided attempt to fill the void that they had left in my life.
That also goes someway to explaining the 746 books situation.
My attitude to shopping is much better now though and the fact that I have stopped buying books has led to a dramatic decrease in the purchase of other things too. So, on the surface, Stuffocation was probably the perfect book with which to end my careless and frivolous book buying days.
I am a sucker for books like this though, I’ve read them all – ‘Not Buying It’ by Judith Levine, Status Anxiety by Alain deBotton, Affluenza by Oliver James, but Stuffocation is slightly different. The message isn’t negative, or anti-Christmas, or even against the idea of spending money. James Wallman’s thesis is that instead of looking for happiness, meaning and status in material things, we need to start seeking that validation from experiences.
Wallman is a trend forecaster and it shows. He pulls together academic research, economic statistics and incredibly readable real life examples to chart the journey from the pre-Industrial Revolution through the Depression and the subsequent spending boom which has led us to where we are today; living with too much stuff, nowhere to put it, use it or dispose of it. And that stuff, he argues, isn’t making us happy. In fact, it is making us ill, as he says:
The problem of stuffocation is that the first slice of a cake is really nice. The second is okay. The third is – well, by the time you get to the sixth piece you’re unwell.
Wallman’s main point is that, for most of us, the cupboard is now full. We need to recognise that more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness and then find something more meaningful to replace material items. That something, he argues, is experience: doing things instead of buying things. As a trend forecaster, Wallman sees this as the way of the future, aided and abetted by technology we are slowly moving to a place where what we do is more important that what we own. He presents the stories of people who have reacted to consumerism in a variety of ways, from living with the minimum of personal possessions (21 seems to be as low as you can go!) to families giving it all up to work the land, or travel the world all in search of more time, more quality of life and more happiness. He acknowledges that we may not want to make quite such radical lifestyle changes, but with a shift in our thinking, we can make the shift from merely acquiring to experiencing, from emptying our wallets to enriching our lives.
It seems that we are, in some ways already doing this, thanks to our use of social media and the internet. Think of Facebook and how we are more likely to share what we are experiencing (a concert, play, trip or sport) than what we have bought. We are more likely to browse through a Friend’s holiday photos, than photos showing off newly acquired handbags or clothes. Technology is also driving the clear and seemingly irreversible trend away from owning stuff, such as records, CDs and DVDs, and streaming music, films and television into our homes instead. As a teenager and young woman, I totally defined myself by the books on my shelf, the music on my walkman and the DVDs in my collection. They were the compelling vestiges of my identity, my place in the world. Most of those CDs and DVDs are packed away now, providing great insulation in my attic. My quest to own every recording Tori Amos ever released now seems charmingly antiquated in the face of Spotify, Netflix and streaming media.
Obviously society couldn’t exist if we all stopped buying and Wallman isn’t advocating that. He believes we just need to prioritise what we are spending our money on in order to ensure it is maximising our well being and happiness. So instead of a new handbag, go to an evening class. Instead of upgrading your car, go on a trip. Focus on the richness of experience rather than acquiring more things.
However, as with all books on downsizing, living better and changing your life, I think that Wallman falls into the trap of appearing unconcerned about, or oblivious to the majority of people who are not upper middle class. All the people whose stories he features start their downsizing from a point of considerable wealth. It’s easier to make the decision to travel the world for three years with your small children if you have a three story house in London to rent out and a successful restaurant business that can be managed by your staff. I had a particular issue with the story of the tech billionaire who gave it all up to follow his glamorous dancer girlfriend around the world before having his smaller, stuff-free home designed and built specifically to his now minimalist needs, which included an office, two spare rooms and a dining table big enough for parties of 12.
Wallman has acknowledged this in interviews since the book was published saying;
I’m really glad you brought that up, because a lot of people sometimes have a bit of an issue with the way that I talk about experientialism as going skiing in Tahoe or Park City or going to Morocco on vacation or wherever. In order to make the book interesting I didn’t talk about gardening or going for a walk in the park, but an experience can be whatever you want.
I get his point that he is making that the shift from materialism to experientialism doesn’t have to be anti-capitalist or anti-consumer but I think he does his reader a disservice. Maybe if he had included examples of people who changed the lives and their mind sets on a more accessible and recognisable level, maybe if he had talked about gardening or going for a walk in the park, the book would have been more successful.
Don’t get me wrong though, this is an entertaining and well researched book, in the vein of Freakonomics or The Tipping Point and even if it does lose steam in the second half, it still puts forward a compelling and novel argument for how we can start to value our happiness over our belongings in a search for meaning and happiness in our lives. It might even change your sock-buying habit for good!
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