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Book review: Stuffocation: Living more with less

Good's features editor Sarah Heeringa reviews this new book by James Wallman, distributed by Penguin, Random House 2015. 

One of today’s most acute afflictions is that instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, we’re feeling stifled by them. In our busy cluttered lives, more is no longer better. Author James Wallman has a name for this affliction; he calls it stuffocation.

Sociological studies in the 70s revealed society’s materialistic bias; four out of five people were typically more concerned about money than quality of life issues. Over time the results of such studies have changed, suggesting that people in Western countries (or ‘mature markets’) are growing increasingly stressed out by rampant consumerism and consumption.

Wallman quotes one recent survey where people reported feeling weighted down by their excess, that they felt they could live without most of the goods that they owned and where two-thirds of respondents made it a point to rid themselves of unnecessary possessions at least once a year.

Wallman concedes we need a certain amount of stuff for everyday living. And material goods can be useful for self-expression and signifying status – for instance, the type of shoes or shirt you wear says a lot about you. But in our materialist culture, Wallman argues, we have come to rely on material goods too much, believing things can solve emotional problems. “Consumer culture has become a sort of pseudo-religion, where material goods have become substitutes for deep and genuinely meaningful human desires and questions,” he says.

It’s not a new idea – pioneering American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” way back in 1899, in his classic critique of consumerism, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

But Wallman argues that in today’s world of mass production of cheap consumer goods, the scale of consumerism has never been as extreme – evidenced by rising consumer debt, the growing phenomenon of compulsive hording and the booming storage industry. Wallman also adds a modern twist to conspicuous consumption; now due to Facebook we’re now able to conspicuously consume experiences as well as physical goods, leading to the phenomenon of fomo (“fear of missing out”), and the feeling that all our friends are living a far more glamorous and exciting life than we are.

The solution? Wallman considers various responses before concluding that the best answer to stuffocation, is “experientialism” – focusing on having meaningful experiences instead of on acquiring more stuff.

This book is well worth a read – it’s written in an easy conversational tone quoting loads of studies and interesting facts – and its central thesis is likely to fuel many a dinner-party discussion.