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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