Charity, Consumerism and Stuffocation

Is clutter overrunning your house? Do you use retail therapy to feel happy? Do you think “Not more stuff!” when you receive a present? If the answer to any of these is yes, you might be suffering from ‘stuffocation’. It’s a term coined by cultural forecaster James Wallman as well as the title of his book on the subject. Wallman draws upon evidence from psychology, sociology and economics to show how having too much stuff, more stuff than we could ever need, is causing us all suffering. His conclusions have important implications for those who are homeless and homelessness charities.

Ever since the industrial revolution, mass produced material goods have become more readily available in developed countries. Wallman cites historian Eve Fischer’s calculation that a shirt in pre-industrial times would cost the equivalent of £2,000 in today’s money. Demand for stuff has also increased, with people buying more than ever. But there is now widespread dissatisfaction with overconsumption and with the idea that having more stuff is always better. According to a Havas Worldwide study into contemporary consumers, two thirds of respondents believe we would be better off if we lived more simply and almost half wish their homes were less cluttered.

Stuffocation is a complex issue with multiple factors. We used to live in a world where resources were very scarce and so evolved an instinct to gather and store up things for times of scarcity. This instinct is still within us today, although our society is now abundant. Material wealth is today perceived as a mark of social status. US advertisers of the 1920’s, the original ‘Mad Men’ (and women), set out to stimulate the then stalling economy with two revolutionary ideas. One, create products which wouldn’t last very long, so people would have to keep re-buying them. Two, manufacture desire; convince people that having things they didn’t need or even know they wanted would make them happier. Advertising does this by connecting a product with values like friendship, satisfaction and success. These ideas caught on throughout the developed world and created our modern ‘throwaway culture’.

The dangers of stuffocation range from environmental to economic to psychological. Wallman goes into detail about how cluttered homes can increase the likelihood of flash fires, injury and even accidental death. But the less apparent danger is to mental health. In a study of how perception of your home affects your mood, it was found that cortisol production correlated to perception of clutter. If you live in a cluttered home, you will become far more stressed over long periods. This is suggested to be because of ‘allostatic load’, the constant awareness of having to negotiate, tidy and think about clutter. We know long term stress adversely affects your health and can shorten your life.

There are also wider effects of stuffocation. Retail therapy won’t make you reliably happier, but it could land you in debt. People who buy into consumerism could become trapped in a cycle of working continuously and accruing debt in order to keep up with the pace of consumerism. When goods are a source of status and readily available, consumption becomes an arms race of conspicuous luxury. Mass production has also affected our environment. When you throw out a bag of rubbish, seventy more bags were generated in making the goods that filled that bag. Landfills are the ultimate outcome of stuffocation.

Wallman considers a number of solutions to stuffocation, based on interviews with people who have renounced consumerism and are happier because of it. Those interviewed include rich high-flyers who have given up all unnecessary possessions, office workers who have moved to the countryside to live a simpler life, and families who have decided to work less and enjoy life’s simple pleasures. But he argues that merely having less stuff, denying yourself modern conveniences or working less isn’t enough. Deprivation isn’t a solution to happiness. Just consider two examples of extreme involuntary deprivation: solitary confinement, the harshest punishment the law allows, and homelessness. The solution to stuffocation must be one that provides a positive alternative to consumerism.

Wallman concludes the reason the people he interviews are happier is because they now focus on experiences rather than possessions. He refers to a psychological study which demonstrates that experiential purchases (E.G. a trip to the museum or cinema) make people happier than material purchases (E.G. A watch or tie). There are several reasons for this. Experiences are more likely to bring people closer together, as they are active and engaging. Doing something says more about the kind of person you are than having something. Also, while we tend to get used to possessions over time, we tend to positively reinterpret experiences, even bad ones, afterwards.

Wallman promotes experientialism as an antidote to stuffocation. It’s a solution that is simple to practice and is gaining popularity because social media such as Facebook facilitate shared experiences. It isn’t just a reaction to consumerism but a rejection of the idea that happiness has something to do with having stuff, either more or less. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having a lot of stuff. An overemphasis on stuff is the cause of stuffocation.

I think Wallman’s idea is an important one, particularly for charities and groups trying to tackle poverty and homelessness. In our society, people in poverty are still seen as failures, while those who have a lot of expensive things are seen as successful. Clearly this mindset results in low-self esteem for those in poverty, making it harder for them to succeed in a society looking down on them. Many of the people we help have esteem issues, as well as a sense of helplessness. Part of our job is helping people find the confidence to take back their lives.

If people’s values changed from materialism to experientialism, then think about what it would mean for charities depending on volunteers. Volunteering has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I get to work with dedicated and passionate people, talk to people with stories that need to be heard but are largely drowned out, and write about important and relevant issues. It’s been a source of enrichment for me, something I hope to continue for as long as I can. Helping people is one of the best experiences in the world and if more people took up the experientialist challenge then society’s attitude to supporting people in need would change entirely; it wouldn’t be seen as a burden but as what it is. A privilege.

Our culture is already beginning to make the change. More and more people are seeing the value in sharing experiences rather than competing to overconsume. But we don’t have to wait for society to catch up to the truth that we already know. We can be the trendsetters. If, like me, your life is cluttered with books you don’t read, clothes you don’t wear, luxuries you don’t enjoy, consider what you would be willing to give to people who need those things more. Then imagine the possibilities of what you can do with all the time, space and energy you now have. Maybe consider volunteering. I promise you won’t regret it.

If you want to learn more about James Wallman or Stuffocation, visit the website here. To learn more about volunteering for New Hope, go here.


Alex Charlton