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The stuff of happiness

31 Mar

These days we’re spending less money on stuff, or so we’re told. According to the Office for National Statistics, between 2001 and 2014  the proportion of our total household budgets devoted to physical goods declined from about 26% to 21%. This may reflect in part the rise in the use of digital media: our desire for music, stories, and films can now be satisfied electronically, doing away with the need for the CDs, books and DVDs that used to clutter our homes.

IKEA’s head of sustainability, Steve Howard,  is broadcasting the same message. In the West, he proclaims, we have probably hit ‘peak stuff’. For Howard, this includes ‘peak home furnishings’: IKEA will now be providing its stores with outlets where you can repair or exchange household items instead of replacing them.

It’s almost a given that this development is a Good Thing. James Wallman in his 2013 book Stuffocation: living more with less argues that ‘materialism is making millions of us feel joyless, anxious, and depressed’. Hear, hear, we cry. Wallman suggests that instead of deluding ourselves with the notion that more and more stuff can make us happy, we ought to embrace experience as a much more positive route to the enjoyment of well-being.

Unfortunately Wallman’s example of a latter-day escape from materialism demonstrates that for him acquiring less stuff doesn’t mean spending less money. Instead of putting pictures of your new car in Instagram, he urges, why not post pictures of your walking tour in the Andes? Find a new, more satisfying way of showing off to your friends, he seems to be saying.

Vivienne Westwood’s ‘choose well and buy less’ philosophy is similarly flawed.  Instead of shelling out money on loads of crap clothes, the designer tells us, everyone should  buy just one really good item. Like a Vivienne Westwood dress for £1225 perhaps?  Most people can’t of course afford that particular recipe for  buying less stuff.

According to Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian (March 2nd),  the OfNS statistics may be misleading anyway. Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development  at the University of Surrey, believes we’re actually buying more not less stuff.

In any case, Jeffries asks, is stuff really so very terrible? Ethnographer Daniel Miller’s book The comfort of things includes accounts of some of the cheap, tacky but much loved objects with which people fill their homes in a randomly chosen London street. It includes such joyful items as sets of plastic bath toys and miniature bottles of foreign liquors.  Material culture matters, Miller writes, because things connect us with others and with the past. I’m all for this, so let me add my own example. I have a pencil sharpener in the form a mallard  which my mother gave me for my birthday, along with an orange, soon after my father died. ‘Get it?’ she asked as she handed over her presents. ‘Duck and orange!’ The fruit has long since gone, but I wouldn’t part with the pencil sharpener for anything. It reminds me of a particular summer’s day over thirty years ago, of the bad time we’d just been through, and above all of my mother, who was a depressive but could also be funny, kind and caring. It reminds me that I loved her.

So stuff can make us happy. I’m  definitely with Miller and Jeffries on that one. I suppose what we need to be wary of is becoming too reliant on it, and of selling our souls in order to acquire it.

Stick with the ducks, I say. Forget about the swanky holidays.

female mallard

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