Book Summary: Stuffocation by James Wallman

A book summary of the key ideas from Stuffocation: Living More With Less by James Wallman, along with the view from the blog.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

  1. Materialism is harming our wellbeing. The materialism of the last 100 years has progressively made the developed world more anxious and more depressed, reaching a point of ‘stuffocation’.
  2. Minimalism, simple living and the medium chill are reactions, not solutions. Because of their reductive nature, they are not capable of replacing the dominant value system of materialism.
  3. We are heading towards experientialism. Instead, we’re on course for a new value system of experientialism: one where experiences are at the forefront of our decisions, and one capable of providing the status indicators that materialism brought with it.
  4. Experientialism is better for our wellbeing. This new era of experientialism will be better for our wellbeing and happiness (as supported by psychological research) but the way we measure societal progress will need to change with it.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

Premise of the Book

The central premise of ‘stuffocation’ is that we are becoming suffocated by our stuff. The materialism that promised us status, identity and meaning isn’t making us happier when we achieve it. Instead, it’s making us more anxious and may even be killing us.

Wallman identifies a post-materialism surge towards simpler living and experientialism. Its causes are varied: from the psychological (many confront a state of affluenza); to the environmental (global warming is reducing our appetite for material accumulation); through to the technological (digitalisation is reducing our need for stuff, e.g. via streaming services).

A range of further socio-demographic and economic factors are identified, such as the rise of the middle class, moves to cities with less space, a lack of belief in the system, rising costs, and the experience economy.

This transition is starting an important change. People are realising that there is a new Happiness Equation: one that values experiences over material possessions.

Key Idea #1: Materialism is harming our wellbeing

Research by the Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) identified a clutter crisis in the US, with households containing thousands of possessions. A further study then appraised the stress levels associated with clutter, with a much higher prevalence of stress in women, as measured by levels of cortisol.

Our accumulation of stuff is creating a practical risk: our stuff makes excellent fuel for fires. Wallman uses the example of a fire in Toronto in September 2010 to illustrate the risks of quicker ‘flashover’ that can be created by substantial numbers of material possessions.

Research also suggests that increased prosperity, once basic needs are covered, is not leading to more happiness. Instead, material possessions have diminishing marginal utility.

Wallman draws a link between higher rates of depression as countries have become more materialistic – even going as far to suggest that mass consumption and mass production, ultimately, cause depression.

As the trigger point for materialism, Wallman points to the overproduction of the 1920s and the decision to encourage higher consumption (despite many reaching ‘need saturation’) instead of producing less and working less.

This creation of a throwaway culture was achieved through changing production from ‘built to last’ to ‘built to break, through the emergence of consumer credit (buy now, pay later), and through to the move from efficient to aesthetic consumer products.

The role of ‘unintended consequences’ in this equation is illustrated using the example of the Streisand effect, where Streisand’s efforts to stop people seeing a photo led to hundreds of thousands seeing it.

Wallman identifies the current state of ‘stuffocation’ as an unintended consequence of materialism. What was expected to lift us into prosperity has come with unexpected costs for wellbeing.

Key Idea #2: Minimalism, simple living and the medium chill are reactions, not solutions

Wallman alludes to some minimalists’ obsession with counting how few things they have: a kind of anti-conspicuous consumption. He suggests minimalism will not replace materialism because it isn’t positive and aspirational enough to provoke mass cultural change.

Similarly, simple living can be viewed through rose-tinted glasses until things become more challenging. The fact that David Thoreau, often seen as the father of simple living, did not continue his simple life in the woods beyond two years shows it doesn’t work well in practice.

A simpler – but not simple to the extreme – form of living appears to be more palatable and sustainable.

As a further alternative to materialism, Wallman raises the idea of the medium chill. Dave Roberts, a writer from the US, coined the term to describe slowing down and working at a more comfortable pace. While it’s an easy sell, Wallman suggests it is not aspirational enough to replace materialism and doesn’t provide a way for people to indicate their status.

His conclusion is that minimalism, voluntary simplicity and the medium chill are all reactions to the common dominant value system of materialism. But while they will not replace materialism, their common theme is the pursuit of experiences over stuff.

Key Idea #3: We are heading towards experientialism

Thorstein Veblen famously coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’, where things are bought for social status as opposed to practical value. Wallman links this to humans’ evolutionary need to display fitness markers.

His contention is that any replacement of materialism will also need to permit us to display such fitness markers.

Facebook and other social media channels are offering a new mechanism to display these fitness markers – and heavily skewed towards experiences. And while the comparisons of social media may bring about negatives, Wallman suggests the positives outweigh this change, mainly because experiences are driven by our intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations.

There is already evidence of a move to experientialism, with several researchers suggesting we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’, along with a substantial increase in experiential purchases.

Wallman suggests the pace of change from industrial revolution to overproduction to mass consumption and stuffocation will happen much quicker in China and other developing economies.

China’s state of overproduction now shows clear similarities to the overproduction of the US in the 1920s and 1930s, and has been a huge growth in advertising agencies to convert thrifty consumers into conspicuous consumers. But there are already signs that at the rate of transition, people will also reach material saturation point and turn to experiences.

The growth of the experience economy is also cited as a key indicator. Experiential marketing and experiences, such as Secret Cinema, are providing an emerging means for capturing consumers who are tired of the same-old material promotions.

Key Idea #4: Experientialism is better for our wellbeing

Research from Tom Gilovich and Leaf van Boven suggests that experiential purchases make us happier than material purchases.

Research suggests there are five main reasons why experiences make us happier:

  1. Experiences are prone to positive reinterpretation (retelling) unlike possessions.
  2. Material possessions are subject to hedonic adaptation.
  3. It’s harder to compare experiences – we’re less likely to worry, regret or look for status implications.
  4. Experiences are more associated with identity.
  5. Experiences bring us closer to people.

Wallman addresses the paradox of being more prosperous when we spend more, and the potential economic implications if we all became experientialist.

To counter the idea that mass experientialism would be economically catastrophic, Wallman uses some examples of ‘consumer minimalists’: those who consume high-quality rather than quantity, often to enhance their experiences.

Experentialism wouldn’t threaten the system because we’ll buy goods that support the experiences. We are already seeing this in experiential goods and the sharing economy.

The potential impacts of experientialism could be far-reaching:

  • More workplaces will offer immersive experiences like Google and others.
  • Working schedules will evolve to accommodate experientialism – shorter weeks, more sabbaticals, shared office spaces.
  • More smaller homes will be built as the focus shifts to homes that deliver experiences and/or are close to experiences.
  • Free time will be used for experiences that give a sense of social currency.
  • There will be an emergence of more community-based activities.

But we also need a more complete way for governments to measure wellbeing.

GDP became the emerging focus for governments from the 1930s and has become the de facto measuring stick for societal progress. But the pressures brought about by materialism require a more holistic measure of wellbeing.

There has been a slow emergence of new measures towards a wellbeing index. A shift in focus away from the materialism-focused GDP measure towards such measures would reinforce the move to experientialism.

View from the Blog

Wallman’s central observation is that the developed world is slowly turning to experiences instead of excess possessions, and that this is better for our health. He’s not wrong. Research on the positive psychology of experiences is blossoming and nobody can dispute the rapid growth of the experience economy in recent years.

But there are some problems with some of the book’s ideas. First, the book takes an extremely narrow view of minimalism, seeing it as a reductive and uninspiring movement. My view of minimalism is the opposite.

Seen through a narrow lens, minimalism is about reducing our stuff. Seen through a wider lens, minimalism is about making space for the meaningful. That invariably means making space for experiences. Further, far from failing to inspire, the decluttering movement has taken off across the world. The success of many well-known minimalists is testament to this fact. Minimalism is no longer niche.

The second problem with the book is its case studies. While interesting and engaging, Wallman’s stories of real-life experientialists can at times test patience. Countless examples are given of individuals quitting their corporate jobs to travel the world or pursue a life of minimalism. These examples are used as a supporting case for experientialism, but the truth is that they don’t add much weight. On the contrary, they leave the reader wondering how the hell they managed to quit their job a few months after deciding they wanted to travel the world.

That, fortunately, is where the problems with the book begin and end. Stuffocation is, on the whole, a brilliant take on the emerging mass response to materialism. It is extensively researched, packed with interesting historical and psychological insights, and with a well-placed idea at its heart: that once our material needs are met, we’d be much better off pursuing experiences. As the book persuasively argues, that change is already underway.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Related Reading:

On the power of experience: Novel Experientialism: The Science of Doing Differently

An introduction to minimalism: The Minimalism Onion: The Layers of Less

Related Book Summaries:

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

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