Help, I’m Stuffocating: The Argument For Buying Less, And Living More

Today, most of us have more stuff than we could ever use - is spending on experience the answer?

It’s a Sunday evening, mid-heatwave, and a friend and I are in my room, sweat running down our backs, desperately trying to make sense of the instruction pack attached to a chest of drawers we’ve been hopelessly trying to build for the past three hours. We’re hot, we’re exhausted, and one of us has a bloody leg from our efforts, but quitting is not an option.

See, I need this unit. I need it, because I’ve simply outgrown my apartment thanks to the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ I have accumulated and this unit is just another saving grace in a long line of storage solutions I’ve purchased to house it all.

The funny thing is, I just didn’t see this happening. A top here, a lipstick there, a cheeky online purchase on payday that I probably (read: definitely) did not need, the clutter grew slowly, and packing it away behind doors and in drawers where I don’t have to deal with it, is the only thing I can do right now to stop it melting my head entirely. This, dear reader, is a case of acute stuffocation.

If you aren’t familiar, ‘stuffocation’ is a phrase coined by author James Wallman, who writes about the topic extensively in his book Stuffocation: Living More With Less. In it, he makes the case for splashing your cash on experiences rather than things, and as I stare hopelessly at the clutter I’ve strewn across my room, I concede that he may have a point.

Still, in Ireland, we like to acquire things. In fact, consumer spending reached an all time high here in the last quarter of 2017, and according to Central Bank, spending by consumers in our economy is forecast to reach €103bn this year. Yet, here’s the ironic part. We’re spending more money than ever purchasing things to make ourselves happy, but unnecessary clutter is actually having the opposite effect.

A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found – perhaps unsurprisingly – that people with cluttered homes were more depressed, fatigued and stressed. Stuffocation, they reported, also contributed to poor sleep, poor eating habits and poor health. Retail therapy, it seems, is not giving us the boost we need.

That’s something psychotherapist and decluttering expert Fiona Hall agrees with. “There’s a growing pressure in social media and a general misunderstanding that we must have more to be included,” she surmises.

But in my experience, owning more often makes us feel less. Buying stuff to make us feel happier will ultimately not achieve the desired result, because after the high of the buy wears off, we usually return to the same emotional state. Then, we’re not only not happier but also responsible for whatever purchases we’ve made.

But is experience really the answer? Science certainly thinks so. A 20 year study conducted by Dr Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, discovered that while the novelty of new items quickly fades and we need to constantly keep raising the bar to get that same feeling, experiences provide a much more lasting happiness. Unlike possessions, experiences become a part of who we are.

I think back to 2011 when I finished college and had two options for my savings: buy a new car on hire purchase or travel the world. To think I might not have chosen the latter option, a choice that shaped me, pushed me beyond my realm of comfort and helped me grow, for something with a two litre engine that I’d likely grind the gearbox out of, ding off the kerb and replace after four years, terrifies me.

Spending my money on plane tickets made me ten times richer than something on four wheels ever could, and yet, the temptation to throw my money at something material nearly threw me. It’s like we look to material items to fill some sort of void, when really we know that inner fulfilment can’t come from something that’s been manufactured.

Fiona hits the nail on head when it comes to the contrast.

New experiences challenge us, open us up to more opportunities, a chance to grow and to make new memories. When we look back at our lives, we will never remember every single purchase. However, we will remember the laughs, the sights, the smells, the new experiences and what that brought to our lives.

That’s why Fiona advises her clients to always keep one shelf or drawer in their home empty. “This signifies a willingness to allow new experiences into their lives,” she explains.

Still, all things considered, I know how excited I am when my online order arrives, the confidence boost a good fitting dress can give you and the thrill of finding a lipstick in just the right shade, so where’s the middle ground? In this regard, travel blogger and STELLAR contributor Nadia El Ferdaoussi serves an example to live by. When she shops, she’s on the hunt for things that will make an experience more fulfilling.

“Since I started travelling, I lost a lot of love for shopping, it just started to feel really boring and mindless,” she tells me.

“I still like nice clothes and stuff, but now I make sure there’s a good reason for everything I buy, like a holiday or event, or things that make my travel experience easier such as tech and gadgets. I never go shopping as a thing to do now, only if I need or want something specific, and I always equate the cost of something in terms of what it would buy me holiday-wise, for example, one bag plus return flights.”

For Nadia, experiences over possessions is a no-brainer.

Having a lot of stuff makes me feel weighed down, and when I’m away with very little belongings, I realise I don’t miss any of those things. Spending money on experiences likes tours or excursions where you meet like-minded people and can’t wipe the smile off your face is worth every penny. The amount of money I’ve spent on flights for example, I’ll never regret that. Or when I maxed out a credit card living in LA for three months. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

So what if you’re ready to break the stuffocation habit? “I first encourage clients to impose a one month non-buying ban on themselves after decluttering,” Fiona advises. “This may seem harsh but it really helps to break the bad habits and negative cycle of constant consumerism. After this month, I also advise clients to question every single purchase. Why am I buying this? What am I prepared to give away to get it? Is it a want or a need? If this item was full price would I still buy it? Am I buying it because I love it or because it is reduced?”

I think Stuffocation author James Wallman puts it aptly. He writes, “We have got enough, and we have had enough of stuff. We are realising that, to live a life that is meaningful, to shake our tail feathers, and to be happy in the 21st century – you, me, and society in general – we all need experience more than ever.”

He’s right, given the choice between a designer handbag and a holiday, I know which one I’d choose.