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More stuff on stuff

9 Nov

The debate about whether stuff can make you happy has been intensified recently by the latest terrifying predictions on climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by almost fifty percent by 2030  if we’re to avert global environmental catastrophe, including the loss of every single coral reef, the disappearance of  Arctic ice, and the destruction of small island states (

People of my generation have got used to thinking (guiltily) that this level of catastrophe isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes.  But if we’ve only got twelve years, then it’s quite possible that it will. 

not buying clothesThe slightly-less-than- appalling news is that we can all do a bit to try to make things better.  Eat less meat, drive our cars less, insulate our homes.  Rather more challenging from my point of view is the advice sent in by one Guardian reader:  never buy anything new until the old one breaks, including clothes. 

My clothes hardly ever break. And I’ve certainly got more than enough to last me the rest of my life. Does that mean I can’t buy any more, ever?  Not a happy thought as far as I’m concerned. 

Sartre: unencumbered by stuff

10 Jan


Three months ago I’d never even heard the expression ‘the experience economy’.  Now it seems that every other journalist is talking about it. Of course, there’s nothing like Christmas for persuading people to angst about Stuff, how much we desire it, and what a waste of money, space and resources it is. Shouldn’t we be opting for experiences instead?

The week before last , the whole of the Radio 4 programme ‘You and Yours’ was devoted to the question of whether, in the west, we’ve reached a state of Peak Stuff. Some people phoned in to say that they were addicted to buying things. Others told us in detail how little new stuff they needed.

One lovely woman informed us that the only non-food item that she doesn’t buy from charity shops is her underwear.  Another made the sensible point that the problem is in part a generational one. As you get beyond middle age you may well find that you’ve got most of the stuff you want, and in any case you can’t find room for any more. The young are generally in a less fortunate position.

A psychologist on the programme reflected on the trend towards experiences rather than things.  On Facebook, he said, a photo of you and your friends having fun will nowadays get far more ‘likes’ than a picture of your new shoes.

I’m still not convinced that telling the rest of the world about your fabulous experiences is any more charming or worthwhile than bragging about your new acquisitions (see this blog, 11 November 2017). But I’m interested to discover that the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre preferred to spend whatever money he had on the experience aspect of human life (as I might have expected from an existentialist, come to think of it).

Sartre’s aim was to pass through life unencumbered. He gave away books after he’d read them; the only objects he tried to hang on to were his pipe and his pen.  Most of the money he earned was redistributed to others. If he did keep any for himself, he preferred not to spend it on stuff,  ‘but on an evening out: going to some dancehall, spending big, going everywhere by taxi, etc etc – and in short, nothing must remain in place of the money but a memory, sometimes less than a memory.’  He was, apparently, a legendary tipper (War Diaries, p.244, 251).

I learned this from the excellent book, At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell (p.119-20). The inclination described is of course very much in line with the existentialist aspiration towards freedom – from possessions as well as from preconceived ideas.

The experience economy – is it making us happy?

11 Nov

eating and shopping

Peak stuff is in the news again (see this blog, 31 March 2016). Market research and retail organisations tell us that the UK’s ‘experience economy’ is on the rise, with people spending more on meals in restaurants, days out and holidays, and less on tangible possessions. Retailers are in trouble, apparently. BHS, for example, has gone dramatically bust, and – more surprisingly – Apple recently reported its first revenue decline in 13 years.  At the same time spending on recreation and culture has gone up by 8%.

The reasons for this trend were discussed on Radio 4’s ‘World at One’ last Tuesday by presenter Martha Kearney and an academic specialising in consumerism. Rising inflation, the academic argued, means that these days people want to save their hard-won cash for essentials like food, rather than spending it on superfluous consumer durables. But what about the ‘experiences’ we’re opting for nowadays? Kearney asked. Don‘t they cost money too? Maybe it’s a question of compensation, the academic suggested. Pressures at work and school mean that families are spending less time in each other’s company, so when they do get a chance to be together they want to do something  a bit more interesting than slog round shopping centres. They’re compensating themselves for not seeing more of each other.

This discussion put me in mind of Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between the experiencing self, who lives in the present, and the remembering self, who maintains the on-going story of our lives (this blog, 9 Oct and 11 Dec 2013). Maybe these days we’re investing more in moment-by-moment experiences, as Kahneman suggests we ought to be doing if we want to be happy.  We’re focussing more on living and less on remembering . 

But there again, maybe we’re not. We still want to tell stories about our experiences, both to ourselves and to each other. In other words, we still want to furnish our remembering selves with material. One thing Kearney and the academic agreed on was that experiences provide just as many opportunities for showing off as stuff does. Rather than displaying our new scatter cushions to our friends we’re deluging them with photos of our meals out and our holidays in Provence. Social media provide us with so many arenas in which to compete with each other on the experience front. And this, we’re beginning to learn, can actually make other people miserable. ‘Why aren’t I as happy as my friends A and B?’ is one of the most common reactions to postings on Facebook, we’re told. This, indeed, was probably one of Facebook’s original underlying purposes. ‘Get booking that holiday now!’ it screams at us. And it seems that we do, in ever increasing numbers.





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