Buy less, do more: 5 reasons why experiences make us happier than things

We need to shift away from a culture of materialism and toward one of experientialism, says author James Wallman

Published March 8, 2014 9:00PM (EST)

   (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)
(Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

British trend forecaster James Wallman has coined a new word: "Stuffocation." (Think "stuff" and "suffocation.") Wallman claims it's one of the most crushing afflictions of modern society. Not only does the materialism it's caused by have a disastrous ecological impact, the argument goes, it's keeping us from leading more fulfilling lives.

The first step toward recovery is recognizing that more stuff doesn't equal more happiness -- something Wallman says is already happening. The second is finding something more meaningful to replace material items. That something, he argues, is experience: doing things instead of buying things. It's an idea that, slowly but surely, he sees moving from the fringes of society to the mainstream.

If stuffocation is the key affliction of our time, in other words, then experientialism is going to be the key solution. In "Stuffocation," his recently released book, Wallman chases down the people who are shifting away from acquiring and toward doing; speaking with Salon, he makes a convincing case for the rest of us to follow in their footsteps. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

"Stuffocation." Aside from the clever name, what's new about this idea? Is it just a clever name for materialism, or is there something else you're trying to get at? 

The important thing about being a good cultural analyst and a good trend forecaster comes from applying the methodology sensibly and intelligently. And I say that because the way that I forecast the future is inspired by something a futurist named William Gibson once said: “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” So my role is to see the future here in the present and to identify the innovative ways of doing things that are happening now that I believe are going to catch on and move into the mainstream.

Some people have said, "What’s new about the problem with materialism? Everybody knows this. What’s new about saying that experience is better than material things? Lots of people say they know that already." But I don’t think anyone else has quite said it. I don’t think anyone has identified this as being the defining problem. And stuffocation, for me, in some ways feels like a bag and I’ve put into it all the different aspects that explain this problem.

What’s new is the way I’ve bagged up these problems together. So some people say, just hold on a second, it just sounds like "affluenza" or "status anxiety" 2.0. "Status Anxiety," by Alain de Botton, is also a great book, but it says that we’re feeling anxious because of today’s society. Affluenza says the ways we live our lives, all this affluence, is causing us to be depressed. But if you look at stuffocation and all of the problems involved with it, it’s not just about the stress that comes with modern life. It’s about all the problems that come with modern life, which could also include the impact we're having on the environment, for example. So what I’ve done is, I’ve taken these other things that other people have identified and I’ve synthesized those into a whole, which is the problem of stuffocation.

My use of the term "experientialism" is much more cultural than it's been used in the past. It’s a value system that underpins what we’re doing, but no one has identified it as the better way for us to live, as the way to solve the problems of stuffocation. No one’s stated that as a manifesto and no one has made that forecast that we are moving from a value system of materialism to a value system of experientialism. No one’s said that that’s going to be the key defining, cultural trend of the 21st century.

And you're saying that it will be the defining trend?

Yes, I believe it will be. It’s important to note that this is for developed Western, successful countries and those who have moved from the problem of scarcity to the problem of abundance. The defining problem of the 20th century in many ways has been the defining problem of human existence: scarcity. The magic of the Industrial Revolution met the geniuses who created the consumer revolution, particularly the mad men and women of the '20s who created a consumer revolution. And it worked first in the United States.

The "American paradox," as Christine Frederick called it, is that it worked so well in the States that everyone else, the Brits, the French, etc., said, "Hold on,  their standards of living are going up in this incredible way and we want ours to do that too." So those of us who were lucky enough not to get bamboozled by communism followed suit as quickly as we could after the Second World War. And then the magic of that idea meant that all the others followed too: the Brazilians, the Indians; they all want some of this too.  So that was the big idea of the 20th century, and I think -- for all the reasons of stuffocation -- that doesn’t work  anymore.

I think people are pretty familiar with the narrative of how materialism became this key way of living. But when did the shift away from that and toward experientialism begin? 

The thing about seismic cultural change is it doesn’t really work so well for news pegs. There’s very rarely a kind of moment when you say, "right, that's it." Especially at this point it’s very hard to identify the turning point. You know, if you look at the Industrial Revolution, that took 150 years to happen. So for people living every day it was evolution, not revolution. But looking back we can say it was revolution. I think what we’re going through to later historians might look like revolution, but for those of us living every day it will feel much more like evolution.

And so in terms of picked moments, it’s really hard to put your finger on it. To give you one example, in 1970, 80 percent of people were materialistic, now it’s 50 percent. And that’s been a gradual shift. In 2011, the experiential luxury section was bigger than any of the other sectors for the first time. There's this guy named Chris Goodall -- he’s an ex-McKinsey consultant, he’s a Cambridge University grad, and he taught economics at Harvard briefly -- he thinks that we’ve reached the point or we’re passing the point of "peak stuff."

Goodall's research began in 2003, and that’s when he’s kind of set his point. He found that our behavior has been changing: We’re now consuming less cars, concrete, paper, steel, fertilizer — a lot of key parts of our economy. We now are what’s called "dematerializing." So, I would say, the first decade of this century is probably a reasonable time to peg that.

You write a lot about these extreme case studies where, for example, people are selling all their possessions. I think also of things like micro-apartments -- this sort of thing feels like a fringe movement. If this is something that’s going to become mainstream, how do you see it taking hold in larger society?

The book almost followed the journey of me identifying this problem and then going looking for the answer. So it's a very whittled down list -- I came across a far larger number of ideas, but I just wanted the ones that I thought were most relevant. The message of "Stuffocation" at the end of the day is not anti-consumerism or anti-capitalism. It’s not anti-stuff, it’s not about getting rid of all of our stuff. I don’t believe we’re going to do that.

The people who are minimalists, who are taking this to the extremes, are reacting. There’s no doubt about it, there are some small number of millions in the States who are doing it and it’s spread around the world. For me, I don’t think we’ll be getting rid of all of our stuff, but what makes me think that this is mainstream is the way it resonates. The response I've had from journalists, and from readers, is that even when people don't agree with everything I talk about, the idea of stuffocation resonates with them: "Oh yeah, I know what you mean, we’ve got too much stuff."

If you think about the study by UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families in Los Angeles, the most comprehensive report on contemporary living ever created, they reached the conclusion that we’re living in the most materially rich society in global history. We have light-years' more possessions than any preceding society. We’re facing material saturation. We are coping with extraordinary clutter and we’re in a clutter crisis. And just to be really clear, those aren’t my terms. Those are the terms of ethnographers and anthropologists whose job it is to be objective. They were beating drums to tell people what they should do. And I think that because we have so many positions, because things have become ubiquitous and cheap and it’s so easy just to buy things nowadays, because we’ve been trained to become that way, that when you tell people, “Yeah, I’ve got too many of this, I’ve got too many pairs of shoes, I’ve got too many books on my shelf that I’ve never read. I’ve got loads of stuff that I just don’t use that just fills up my home” -- it just resonates for people.

So there are a lot of things playing into this attitude, and you point out that concern for the environment could be one of them. Do you think that plays a prominent role in people moving away from materialism, or is it more of a secondary outcome?

It’s funny, because when I talk about stuffocation, I very rarely mention the environmental aspect. And it has a very small mention in the book. That's partly because I feel it’s so obvious. But also, not only is it obvious, I think it’s one of those drivers of stuffocation — one of those things that fits into the bag of stuffocation — is that it’s all well and good for some people to be concerned about the environment, but there are a lot of people who a) aren’t bothered about the environment, and b) even if they are bothered about the environment they aren’t bothered enough to do something about it and stop consuming stuff.

So firstly, like I said, this isn’t a trend for 2014 that's going to be gone by 2015. This is not something that means that Cyber Monday and all those sale shopping days aren’t going to happen. People aren’t going to stop going to the store. It’s not going to happen overnight. Because all of the reasons for stuffocation aren’t short-term blips. They are observable, long-term trends. I think as we see climate change continue to happen, there seems pretty clear evidence that things are changing. As we see that start to affect more and more people in terms of weather patterns changing, there will be increasing concern about the environment and that will affect us.

But at the same time, even if you have no interest in the environment, all of the other things that are causing stuffocation -- status anxiety, affluenza, the clutter crisis, the stable society that we live in today -- all of these things will push us to shift from materialism to experientialism. You don’t need to believe in environmentalism to agree with the other aspects of stuffocation and the other reasons why we’re shifting from materialism to experientialism.

What are some of those other reasons?

One of them is the knowledge that we get more happiness from experiences than we get from material goods. And that is very new knowledge. That was discovered in a paper in 2003 by two psychologists called Thomas Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven. The paper, wonderful name, was called: “To Do or To Have, That Is the Question.” For me, that was a watershed moment because before that time, you couldn’t say for sure whether an experience or a material good was better. Someone could say, “Look, if you think experience is better than material goods, you’re buying the wrong stuff.”

It sounds like more of a philosophical debate. 

Yeah, exactly. There was no answer. But these guys proved, in a social science way, that experiences are better than material goods. It didn’t really get a lot of publicity until about 2009, but the thing is, once we have that knowledge — and there are other works and books coming out about this — once you know that, if you continue to put your focus on material goods rather than experiential you’re making the choice not to be happier.

Let’s go back to the idea of knowing that jogging is good for us, for example, which I think was discovered in the 1950s or 1960s, or that cigarettes were bad for us, or that eating blueberries is good for us, or eating broccoli is good for us -- the thing is, it’s quite rare that once we discover that we start changing. It wasn’t when it was discovered that there was a correlation between smoking and disease that you suddenly saw people jogging more. It took a number of decades for it to really change. But it has changed our behavior. It has changed our culture over a number of decades. And by the same token, the knowledge that experience is better than material goods at making us happy, giving us identity, giving us status, giving us meaning in our lives, is going to change the way people make decisions.

I’d love to talk about the different facets of experientialism. As you say, it’s something that can require spending a lot of money. What are some of the ways you see this as an improvement over materialism?

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. And the fact that the shift from materialism to experientialism is not anti-capitalist, not anti-consumer. It’s not about spending less money. Because a really important part of our system is that we need people to keep spending money to give people jobs, to create the great standards of living that we have. If we want to have more, we have to spend more -- it's a very simple correlation in terms of our economy. I’m not trying to bring down the economy at all.

But at the same time, the magic of the experientialist viewpoint is you don't need to go to Peru on a holiday. You don’t need to go to Marrakech for a vacation. You don’t need to spend a whole bunch of money to have a great time and experience. If you look at the statistics, living near a park makes you happier. Going for a walk with friends. Being in nature. Just doing things is good for you in terms of making you happy.

So it depends on what you define as significant experiences. 

Well, it depends on you. It depends on your choice. Some people like to go skiing. Some people like to go for a walk. Some people like to rock climb. Some people like to ramble in the hills. There’s a very interesting piece of research that I came across recently that says really gung-ho, seat of your pants, exciting experiences really work well for young people whereas for older people, what they should look to do is the simple experiences. Going for a walk with a friend, having dinner with a friend, whatever it might be. I think you’re trying to make a statement about who you are. And what’s interesting, I think today, is that instead of making a statement about who we are in terms of our material goods, we’re much more focused on making a statement on who we are through experiences instead. So if you think of the rise of Tough Mudder, there’s a great example.

And one of the interesting things about that discovery in 2003 is since then there has been lots of research into why experientialism is better than material goods at making us happy.

You beat me to the question.

So there are five key reasons why experiences are better than material goods at making us happy. The first thing is something that social scientists call “hedonic adaptation.” And that’s simply a way of saying that with material goods you get bored of things quickly, whereas with experiences you don’t. The great example is the mobile phone. When you first get it you press the buttons, you play with it, you tell your friends about it, you’re excited. A week later, not so excited. A month later, ehh. Three months later it’s part of the furniture. You just get used to the thing being around.

The second thing is “positive reinterpretation.” That’s basically, if you buy a bad material good, let’s say a pair of shoes that actually don’t fit that well or a pair that squeak or that coat that swishes or makes a weird noise when you’re walking, there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s just a bad decision. That’s it. But with an experience, if it goes wrong, it doesn’t really go wrong at all.

Think about being on a long bus ride, and you've sat next to a person who’s sick – literally sick – all over you. And there are chickens on the bus, the windows won’t open or shut, you bang your head, the seat is really uncomfortable, and you break your coccyx and you’re just in agonizing pain, it’s supposed to be a one-hour journey and it takes three days. At the time, that’s a really horrible thing to be going through. But the more you tell it, the better it is, right? There’s that magic. The magic of a bad experience is that it’s almost like there’s no such thing as a bad experience. That's probably my favorite reason.

The third reason why experiences are better than material goods – and this actually references the status anxiety – is that experiences are much harder to compare than material goods. And that means that we don’t get the same kind of tension that comes with comparing things. You know, if you’ve ever bought a handbag, and your colleague turns up the next day with the better one – let’s say you got the one from Top Shop, and it’s a great bag, but your colleague got the Gucci one, and there’s no doubt about it, it’s a better bag. Or I have a Nissan, it’s a very plain, average car, and one of my neighbors has a Porsche, another one has an Audi. And there’s no doubt about it that they have nicer cars than me.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that for a holiday your neighbor goes to the Four Seasons in Hawaii, or the Maldives, or one of those amazing islands off Brazil and stays in a five-star resort, and drinks champagne from the refrigerators, which are on the beach. And you go to Wales for a rainy camping holiday. Or you drink warm beer on the beach, or whatever it might be. Now there’s no doubt about it that they had a swankier holiday than you. But did they have a better holiday? Is chilled champagne on the beach better than warm beer? People often smile at me when I say this, and say of course they did.

But actually, you might be really wealthy and having what looks like an amazing time, but you might not be happy and having fun. It’s much more about the people you’re with and what you’re doing. But anyway, from that basis, it’s much harder to compare experiences than it is material goods.

You could argue, though, that people going on social media and posting photos of their vacations is breeding a lot of envy, couldn't you?

Definitely. The FOMO [fear of missing out] idea is, I think, the 21st-century version of “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s been fascinating talking to people – particularly in the salons I’ve been hosting recently –they have a real problem with status and with the idea that people are posting pictures of where they are, and that’s destroying the experience. There’s no doubt about it: If you spend more time worrying about what you’re going to be posting or tweeting or putting on Facebook that you’re not going to have as good a time. There was great research lately that showed that if you Instagram shots of your food, you enjoy your food less. I think we can all relate to the idea that if you’re focusing on what other people think about your time, you’re not going to have as good of a time.

So there are some issues with replacing material things with experiences as a kind of better way. But I think people get too obsessed with the idea that taking a picture of something is about status. I’ve taken pictures of me and my brother and father on a ski slope in Chambery, or a wonderful picture of a cloud that was over Mont Blanc, for example, and I didn’t take that picture to show off to people I was there. I mean, possibly slightly, but I took it as a memory that I was there, and to share it with, for example, my niece who’s on Instagram and wants to see a picture of her family skiing together. It’s not just about status. It’s just about sharing what we do.

So back to those last two reasons ...

Yes. So No. 4 is about identity. If you think about the things that you have versus the things that you've done, the things you have contribute far less to your identity. Wedding gifts are a great example, as compared to actually having had a wedding. Or if you just had to choose between giving back $1,000 worth of clothes and things that you have, versus giving back $1,000 worth of a weekend away with friends, most people would give back the stuff. Have you seen the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"? Experiences really matter -- things that happen to us, that we have done, really contribute to our identity.

If you've climbed the hill, if you've done the Tough Mudder course, if you've learned to surf, if you've learned how to make bread or cupcakes, or you've run the New York Marathon, or you've gone ice skating in Central Park -- that contributes to who you are. Whereas having a material good doesn't contribute in the same way nearly as much.

The final point -- and this one is really key -- is that experiences tend to bring us closer to people. Because we're social animals, being closer to people tends to make us happier. So if you're buying something, it tends to separate you from other people (it doesn't always, obviously there's a mix here), whereas doing something tends to bring you closer.

There are two pieces of research I love. One shows that talking about experiential goods makes you happier than talking about material goods. The other shows that we prefer to listen to people who talk about experiences rather than materials. So if you know that piece of information, and if you have a choice of having $100 or $1,000 to spend on a material good or an experiential good, you'll know that with the experience, you'll enjoy doing it more, you'll enjoy talking about it more, and people will be more inclined to listen to you. So in every single way, it will bring you closer to other people and it will make you happier.

By Lindsay Abrams

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