No. 725 Stuffocation by James Wallman

ImageStuffocation 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!

Read On: Book

Number Read: 22

Number Remaining: 724


Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

22 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Really interesting – I am constantly trying to reduce how much I own because my flat is tiny. I always feel better after a big clear out but then it builds up again…could be time for another reassessment of all my stuff (including the TBR pile)!


    • I know how you feel. Once our twins arrived into our little semi, we realised how much stuff we had that we just weren’t using. Now the house is just filled with toys! Some days I think I could just chuck everything in to a skip and I wouldn’t even miss it!


  2. My husband would love this book! He’s always trying to convince me that we should get rid of everything, sell our house, and build a Tiny House (have you ever seen those Tiny Houses on the internet?). I don’t think I’m willing to go quite that far, although the Tiny Houses are very cute, and I would like one for myself. 🙂

    I agree that it would be much better if he had examples for ordinary people who don’t have any extra money (most of us!).

    I really enjoyed this review!


    • Thanks Naomi! I just went and looked up Tiny Houses and while I think they are adorable, I would go MAD living in one of those! I liked that the book wasn’t saying the only way to happiness is living off grid, growing your own food and never buying clothes again but for a better read I would recommend one of my all time favourite books – How to Live by Tom Hodkinson – it champions the middle ground!


  3. Good review.  I’m glad you made the point about accessibility across the classes and the assumptions authors can make about others’ lifestyles.



  4. Oh, that is really too bad that the author used such inaccessible examples. I think that if we wanted “interesting” we could switch on a soap opera. Anyway, my (very middle class) husband and I “downsized” our life when our son was born. We moved out of one of the most expensive cities in the world and into a quieter, smaller, less glamorous and more affordable town. We also left our jobs to start our own business at home, cutting our salary by a third but increasing our personal time several-fold. Even with this I realized we were also very lucky, because we are in a field which translates easily to our own business. But I do like the idea of trying to be creative in order to live more simply and more happily. They can be big or small steps.


    • Cecilia, I hope I’m not coming across as not having respect for people who change their lives! I really admire what you have done, it takes a lot of guts and strength to re-evaluate your life in that way. I admired the case studies in the book as well but just felt a little balance would have improved the argument. As you say, even just being creative rather than simply spending money is a great place to start. I do hope your downsized lifestyle has brought greater happiness and contentment for you and your family.


  5. The examples do seem to rather undermine the message. At that scale minimalism becomes another way of expressing one’s wealth – something most people simply can’t do.

    Which is a shame, as there are plenty of books on this topic (enough to build many, many tiny houses out of) which avoid that error and have much more prosaic examples. Shame.

    How did it compare to Affluenza and the others you mention?


    • I actually appreciated the message Max. Unlike some of the other books it is not saying clear out all your stuff, become minimalist, quit your job. What he seems to be saying is put your money, time and energy into doing tings rather than buying things. And that is easy for us all to do. I understand that his case studies prove his thesis really well, they just all seem to start from a position of wealth so their experience isn’t as easy to empathise with.


  6. I enjoyed this piece. Your opening really caught my eye tbh. My friend recently lost a couple of close relatives and I think she’s going through something similar to what you went through – buying A LOT of books. I don’t blame her, she’s only young and it’s a terrible loss that she’s trying to cope with but I’d never seen the like until I spotted that little snippet above.
    I must admit that there seem to be mixed messages in this book – let’s face it, if you’re struggling to make ends meet, living in a two up two down, you’re not going to have a lot of connection with the guy above with the huge dining table that now only seats 12! Obviously he’s tried to ‘glam up’ his examples but I think it probably makes them too difficult to relate to for a large proportion of people = a lot of readers!
    Lynn 😀


    • Oh it wasn’t just books Lynn – clothes, accessories, cosmetics, crockery {!?} – realised it was a problem when I found two of the same top in my wardrobe still with tags on. I hadn’t remembered buying the first so bought it again *shudder*.


  7. I love how considered and measured your reviews are. This book is of interest to me because we have a rather different approach (both working part time, small affordable house in a daggy suburb, strategic consumption manifesto but a focus on experiences, hence all of the travel). Just today while walking in Japan my husband said that we need to cut back more on our possessions and be more minimalist like the Japanese who live in such cramped conditions but manage to do so with such beauty. I do like some possessions though!


      • Hehe thanks. I’m probably talking it up too much. I love beautiful things and I try to find loopholes in our strategic consumption manifesto, like buying clothes for my children, or putting a clause in there that we can buy whatever we want while travelling, or like I recently went shopping at lunchtime with a visiting colleague and ‘accidentally’ bought a hot skirt for work, hiding behind the excuse that I’ve shrunk a bit and can’t fit into my work clothes properly. I’m rambling, sorry! In short I should have said that I love exceptions. Separately your book reviews are much better than mine!


      • Oh I am the Queen of excuses, particularly when it comes to clothes. I do wonder what my husband makes of me justifying a purchase when I have an already bulging wardrobe! I’m actually amazed that I’ve made it to 5 months without buying a book. I never thought I could do it!


  8. I enjoyed your elegant review, to the point even of not feeling the need to add Stuffocation to my already-excessive must-read list because (I assume) you describe it so well (the author probably won’t thank you for that!).

    I like your comment about the middle class attitude…like the voluntary simplicity movement I sometimes think that anti-consumption tendencies are a luxury, something that people tinker with when they’ve tried consumerism and it hasn’t worked for them.


    • Thank you so much for reading and I appreciate your kind words. I did enjoy the book and it did make me rethink some aspects of how I live, but at the back of my mind I always wonder how these movements must seem to people who are simply struggling to get by.


      • Exactly. I was in Indonesia recently and, strangely, not only did I have the usual consumer guilt (you know, being the wealthy westerner in a quasi-developing country) but I also felt a bit pretentious because of my anti-consumption and minimalust aspirations. No doubt the impoverished locals would think it absurd that I have so many possessions (including, like many, a stupid number of books) but also that I’m uncomfortable with all that materialism.


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