'Stuffocation: Why We've Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever' (book review)

Stuffocation book cover
© Stuffocation

The definition of a "First World problem," this book touches upon a sensitive and relevant point for our times -- the feeling of being suffocated by too many material possessions.

Stuffocation” opens with the mesmerizing story of Ryan Nicodemus, a young guy who packed up all his belongings into cardboard boxes until there was nothing left in his apartment but the most basic furniture. Every day, he removed only what he needed – a towel and toothbrush, a change of clothes, a fork, pot, or plate. By the tenth day, there was nothing else he needed, so he did what most of us can only dream of – he got rid of it all, without any further deliberation.

James Wallman’s new book, “Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever,” is a foray into a world of alternative living. There is growing restlessness among many people and a desire to rebel against the commonly-held view that the acquisition of material goods is worthwhile. Wallman explains the different lifestyle movements that have sprung up in response.

Nicodemus is a ‘Minimalists’ (and co-founder of a hugely successful blog by the same name). Minimalists try to live with as few possessions as possible. There are people who strive for ‘Simple Living,’ often moving away from urban settings into more self-sufficient, rural places. There’s also what Wallman calls ‘The Medium Chill,’ describing people who consciously limit their exposure to aggressive Western business culture by acknowledging when they’ve had enough of the ladder-climbing, promotions, and overtime pressures.

Wallman clearly respects these various reactions to the system, but he suggests an alternative called 'Experientialism.' He gives the following five reasons for why experiences are better than material possessions at making people happy:

1) Experiences are prone to “positive reinterpretation,” meaning you’ll instinctively turn a bad memory into a positive one, whereas a bad purchase will stay sour in your mind.

2) Material possessions are prone to “hedonic adaptation,” which is a fancy way of saying the novelty will wear off. An experience, on the other hand, is wonderful in the moment and re-livable in retrospect.

3) Experiences can’t be compared in the same way that stuff is, which makes everyone’s experience unique.

4) Experiences contribute to our personal identities in a way that material possessions do not.

5) Experiences bring us closer to other people. They are a great conversation-starter and make us more interesting.

Wallman, a trend forecaster, is confident that experientialism will replace materialism as the new status quo. He says that many brands and advertisers are already offering experiences in place of, or in conjunction with, the purchase of goods.

Wallman’s idea is appealing, but his defense of experientialism as being a more environmentally friendly option is surprisingly unsatisfactory:

“Many experiences, of course, require material goods and create a footprint. Consider the carbon footprint of an experiential purchase like a vacation to Borneo, for instance. But since experiences are, by definition, less predicated on material possessions they are likely, overall, to create less environmental harm.”

I’m not convinced. As lovely as it sounds, jetting off to Borneo for a week at a luxurious resort is going to have a much bigger environmental impact than buying a new Diane von Furstenberg dress; painting it as a greener option is foolish.

Aside from that, Wallman brings up an important and relevant discussion about the over-prioritization of stuff in our lives. The book has given me an urge to purge and to seek out even more experiences than I already do. I particularly liked this reminder:

"Isn't it funny how, as many of us get older, we forget what truly makes us happy, and our spending shifts? We used to blow our money on extravagant adventures and memorable experiences, but we don't have the time or energy anymore. So instead, we reward ourselves for all that hard work by splurging on material consolations, on clothes, gadgets, and jewelry we don't need, have room to store, or time to wear."

I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about “stuffocation,” that wonderful term coined by Wallman.

You can buy “Stuffocation” here.

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