Just as materialism transformed life in the 20th century, experientialism has the power to do the same in the 21st century, says the author of an influential new book.
What did you get for Christmas? Better question – what did you do for Christmas?
Rather than buying things for three-year-old daughter India-May, author, journalist and trend forecaster James Wallman took her to a pantomime of Dick Whittington. “She’s already got toys. Lots of stuff,” he says on the phone from London. But she loves dinosaurs. ”If she had to choose between a new toy dinosaur and a trip to see the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, she would choose the museum any day.”
Wallman is a big advocate of “investing in experiences and memories, rather than the short-loved appeal of objects”, and believes it to be the zeitgeist of our age. The former futurology columnist for technology magazine T3 and editor for European trend consultancy The Future Laboratory is adamant that we buy too much, have too much, hold on to too much. We are weighed down “by our own excess” and our insatiable hunger for ever-more stuff is making us “joyless, anxious, depressed”.
Our obsession with having things is unsustainable, he argues. It has a huge ecological impact. It adds to our debt. And it no longer propels us up the social ladder.
One of the great benefits of this new trend towards privileging experience over assets, he says, is that the disparity between the haves and the have nots becomes less clear. “If you look at the world from a materialistic viewpoint, you see that some people really have and some people really don’t have, but if you shift your perspective to an experientialist point of view, it’s a different playing field.”
He describes a dinner party. One of the guests has been on a camping trip half an hour from the city. It rained every day. Another has been to Namibia and had amazing weather. “There is no doubt who has had the highest status experience. But who has had the better holiday? Of course you want to hear the Namibia story of plains and wild animals but you also want to hear the other story. They might have gone camping and it rained all the time and it all went wrong, but they’ve got a great story.
“If you have run a marathon under a certain time or if you’ve worked in a homeless shelter over Christmas, you have a story to tell other people and a story to tell yourself about your identity. In a world of abundance, not a world of scarcity, which is the world we come from, the story you have to tell is much more important than things that you have.”
Wallman’s message has found a global audience. Originally published in 2013, his book Stuffocation: Living More with Less has rippled through news media in Sweden, Peru, China and the US. This second edition is being published in the UK, the US, Turkey, the Czech Republic, South Korea and Poland as well as New Zealand (on sale from January 5).
And marketers, he says, are taking note, latching on to early adopters “so they can morph their product positioning to appeal to them … appealing to an experientialist consumer rather than a materialistic consumer. Already the smarter banks are doing that: they’re thinking about giving their clients adventures, experiences to make their lives better and more exciting.
“I really believe that experientialism is the opportunity of the century, that just as materialism transformed standards of living in the 20th century, experientialism has the power to transform quality of life in the 21st century.
THE AGE OF ABUNDANCE
As he writes in Stuffocation, materialism had its place. Until the latter part of the 20th century, most people lived in a world of scarcity. Material possessions ensured warmth, financial security, survival. “You’d get something for Christmas because you couldn’t afford it – someone had to save up to buy it for you.”
Now, he writes, we are living in an age of material abundance. “If people want something, they tend to buy it.”
Take a men’s dress shirt. Before the Industrial Revolution, such a shirt would have cost close to $4000 in today’s money. Today, a shirt from Farmers will cost around $60. Teddy bears, once a prized possession, are given away by businesses. Christmas cards? Ten for a dollar. A bathroom towel? Free with Fly Buys.
And still we buy and buy, insatiable consumers wooed by an advertising industry tasked in the early 20th century with dealing with widespread overproduction.
Wallman is not averse to the capitalist system. It is just that the standards used to define wealth need to change.
“I am child of the 70s and 80s. My father rode Thatcherism fantastically well. I can picture him now in one of his Porsches on his car phone, which we thought was pretty cool. He used to say, ‘If you’re not a communist by the age of 20, you don’t have a heart, and if you’re not a capitalist at the age of 40, you haven’t got a brain.’ When he was 20 he had really strong left-wing beliefs. At 40 he had two kids in private school. Thanks to that I had lived a very lucky life.”
But in working as a journalist and in the field of cultural analysis and trend forecasting, the problem of materialism “kept coming up … Everyone knows there is a problem with our system, and the more I thought about materialism, the more I saw it as one of the essential problems we have.”
Wallman’s neighbours clearly have better cars – a BMW X5 on one side, a Porsche Boxster on the other. He drives a bluey-green Nissan Primera, “arguably the world’s ugliest vehicle”. He’s totally cool with it: it “gets me from A to B and my mother-in-law gave it to me”.
He has a desperately wealthy banker friend, “but he works 20-hour days, works weekends, and he’s been doing this for 20 years. In my job I worked really long hours, but I don’t work weekends any more. I see my children. There is something to be said for having the time to do what you like.”
But can we avoid this incessant push for ever-increasing material wealth? In his book, Wallman walks us through the alternative lifestyles as trialled by those he interviewed during his three years of research.
Some chose the minimalist path, downsizing the home, accessing books and music online, eschewing gifts and emptying wardrobes. A sound choice ecologically, agrees Wallman, “but minimalism is not compatible with the way we live. Stuff is good – it’s good for security, it’s good to express our identity and beliefs, and it connects us to our past and to others.”
Others chose “voluntary simplicity”, living off the land in tune with the natural rhythms of the world: romantic and probably healthy, but also “complicated, dull and hard” – just getting a winter’s supply of firewood takes weeks of grinding labour.
Others again opted for the “medium chill”, a cruisy life turning down the job promotion (longer work hours) or the bigger car (more debt) in favour of a more laidback way of living. And is this one the answer? No, says Wallman – as a lifestyle, it is very low in aspiration. “‘Look at me, I’m in second gear’ does not have much of a ring to it.”
Wallman has another solution: experientialism, a value system based on experiences. In experientialism, he says, doing becomes the new having. Happiness and status are defined not by what people have, “but by what people do”.
Experientialism is better for society, better for the world, better for us as people in terms of our happiness and status and giving us meaning in life, he argues. “And once you have a greater sense of happiness, once you have a greater sense of identity, you will be more resilient in your life and in terms of making better choices.”
Rather than buying a new car or a new kitchen, how about a trip to Croatia or a day’s heli-skiing? “You might be more in debt, but those experiences give a greater sense of who you are. You are someone who has done something as opposed to just having something.”
Rather than a new object to be squeezed into an already bulging cupboard, what about a movie pass? A picnic?
But he is not anti-stuff, because “experiential goods” can give you just as much pleasure as experiences. “I have two bicycles, one road bike and one mountain bike with a seat on the back for my daughter, and I need those two because they both give me great experiences. My wife is into fashion but there is something strengthening about fashion. If you come back to that basic idea that doing something will make you happier than having something, fashion is a really great example. It brings people together.”
But Wallman, too, has had to address his secret inner hoarder. “I’ve always enjoyed having things, but the more I realised that having less stuff made people happier, the more I began looking at my own things. When I was younger I had lots of pairs of trainers – I have one pair now. I have about five or six shirts; I don’t need any more – how many shirts can you wear? I had three copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. I just have one now.” But every couple of weeks he’ll put stuff into bags and get rid of it. It is, after all, “just stuff”.
There is a certain ruthlessness here. When Wallman tried on his grandfather’s dress suit, he found the effect nothing like what he hoped. “It just looked awful on me. I had a photo taken of me wearing it, kept the photo and ditched the suit. I wasn’t going to wear it.”
When his mother gave him his once-prized collection of Star Wars toys, he was pleased, of course. “But I’ve gone through them and will keep the ones I love and get rid of the others. It’s about getting the right balance.”
The photo of himself as a 12-year-old on skis? “I’ll scan it and keep the scan. Then there is the problem of digital clutter, but I’m getting better at organising it. If you had loads and load of photos, you’d never look at them.” And the less stuff you have, “the more room you have to breathe”.
“I try to tell this to my friends who like shopping – you don’t have to waste your time going to the shops, you don’t have waste your time looking at stuff, you don’t have waste your time having it and storing it or if you don’t like it having to take it back. That isn’t fun. And you don’t have to waste your time earning money to pay for it in the first place.”
But as parents, don’t we want to accumulate some wealth to pass on to our children?
“Leaving them a bunch of stuff is not going to bring them happiness or a meaningful life. But if I leave them with what they should do to get happiness out of life, a sense of what they can do and of who they are, that is so much more important.”
THE START OF A MOVEMENT
The experientialism trend is already happening. Instead of looking for happiness, identity, status and meaning in material goods, says Wallman, people are increasingly seeking them in things they do. Whole countries are devising new well-being and sustainability indexes to measure the nation’s success beyond the limited lens of material progress as measured by GDP.
On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we are sharing parts of our lives “in a less boastful and shallow way” as experiences outweigh material goods in defining personal identity. We employ professional de-clutterers to deal with our overstocked cupboards, and pore through small and spare home designs in house magazines.
Michael Lee, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland’s Business School, sees evidence of the growing disenchantment with unchecked consumerism in the proliferation of community sharing platforms for pooling cars, power tools and toys, the rise of anti-consumerist movements freeganism and dumpster diving, and new technologies that allow us to stream music or videos without actual buying them.
In his own home, he and his partner have adopted a Scandinavian-style less-is-more approach. “We don’t like clutter. Particularly with children, there is always a lot of decluttering before we get anything new. We give away old clothes that have only been worn once as our daughter has grown up. We have rules that you have to pick five toys to give away before you get five other ones. Otherwise you just end up with shelves and shelves of stuff.”
THE JONES FACTOR
It’s not the first time we’ve tried to address this issue. For centuries anthropologists, sociologists, poets and, briefly, hippies have worked to disassociate money from happiness.
“In the beginnings of any of the major world religions, you see people taking an anti-materialistic attitude towards greed,” says Lee. “That has always been around in terms of the spiritual side of things versus the commercial capitalistic viewpoint of life.”
So why, in a time of general abundance rather than scarcity, do so many of us keep slipping back into buy-now mode?
Wallman points the finger at our very human desire to be keep up with the ever-so capricious Joneses. “We are all susceptible to it. We have friends in London whose home could eat our home – we get back and there is a discussion about how can we possibly live in this tiny house? We meet up with friends who have been on more holidays than us and the next day we’ll have a conversation about what holidays we might go on. Someone you know gets a new smartphone and suddenly you’re thinking about smartphones.
“This is how trends happen. Even with experiences – you find a lot of your friends are going hiking and suddenly you’ll start thinking about going hiking. It’s one of the standard things humans do. If your more innovative risk-taker-type friends, instead of trying to earn more money, decide to work only four days a week and the other day play golf or squash or go for a walk in the woods, people will follow them.”
DO YOU HAVE TO HAVE STUFF TO NOT WANT IT?
Lee sees real positives in Wallman’s message. “If you compare the experiences of a poor family with those of a rich family, and you base it not on a fancy bike or bach but on how much they enjoy each other’s company playing volleyball on the beach or having a picnic, it would seem there is less disparity because you are comparing experiences that are priceless rather than products that have a price tag on them.”
But the danger of this, he says, is that it is almost like condoning poverty, “because you are saying the poor do not need to get rich – all they need to appreciate is the relationships they have. That poor family won’t buy that argument from a presumably well-off author saying, ‘Trust me, you don’t need a new PlayStation, you just need to go out and kick a ball with your siblings and you’ll have a good time.’ They won’t buy that because they want a PlayStation, because that is what the rich kids have.”
The irony of a focus on de-materialisation, he says, is that you almost have to have stuff in order to not want it. “This level of experientialism or de-cluttering can only occur when a population has reached a certain level of cultural capital. You need to come from a society and from a position in society where you have all the stuff you pretty much want and you realise it is not really filling that gap.
“You can’t go to the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China] with their growing middle classes striving to have the privileged Western lifestyle and say, ‘Well, actually, here in the West we don’t really value possessions any more, we’re into experiences and doing stuff rather than buying stuff.’ They’re not going to buy that. They are going to want their two cars per family and their new fashions every season. They are going to want to cut their trees and have their factories to have the things they want.”
AND IN THIS COUNTRY?
New Zealanders in general, says Lee, are not too materialistic. “Rarely do you see people driving around in a Lamborghini or Ferrari, and if you do people almost look down on that – it’s that tall-poppy syndrome.
“But we do have those $1 million suburbs popping up. Clearly there are some people at the top who very much embrace materialism and base their entire lives and careers around it. We will never get to a point where the entire society will shun materialism and only value spiritual growth and intrinsic motivation. People have always been about accumulating resources. We’ve been hard-wired to do that.”
But Wallman points to the momentum for change. “As people shift from being materialistic to being experientialist, they will make better choices, not because they stop to think about whether it is the right thing to do but because it becomes second nature to choose something that gives them more meaning and happiness.”
There’s a new honesty now. “Do we look up to the person who works long hours and has all that money or that big yacht? Or do we look at the guy who has a small boat or no boat, who goes to the coast and takes it easy? Who’s getting it right? What are we aspiring to – money or happiness?”
STUFFOCATION: LIVING MORE WITH LESS, by James Wallman (Penguin UK, $37). On sale from January 5.
Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.