Stuffocation is the story of one of today’s most acute, till now unnamed, afflictions.
It is about how you, me, and society in general, instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, are feeling stifled by them. Instead of thinking of more in positive terms, as we once did, we now think more means more hassle, more to manage, and more to think about.
In our busy, cluttered lives more is no longer better. It is worse.
Overwhelmed, and suffocating from stuff, we are suffering from an anxiety that I call Stuffocation.
There are millions, right now, all around the world, feeling like they have too much stuff.
There are the two million, to begin with, who read the blog and books Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn — also known as The Minimalists — write about living with less stuff each year.
Then there are the twelve million — as many as live in Greater London, or in New York and Los Angeles combined — who have seen a film online called The Story of Stuff, about the disastrous ecological impact of materialism.
After watching the film and learning, for instance, that for every bag of rubbish they put out, another seventy bags of waste have been created to make the goods that filled that bag, most of them probably feel that they would like less stuff in their lives.
And there are many more. A political scientist by the name of Ronald Inglehart has been following people’s attitudes toward material things — stuff — since 1970. When he began his research, he found, in the six countries he surveyed — the U.K., France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium — that four out of five people held materialist values.
Most people were more concerned about how much money and how many things they had, and less bothered about quality of life issues. Political scientists have been conducting similar surveys, at regular intervals, ever since in more than fifty countries.
The message from the research is clear: we are becoming far less materialistic, as only around one in two now hold materialist values. “Almost half the people are now post-materialists,” says Inglehart. It may even be more than that.
When one of the world’s largest advertising agencies — then called Euro RSCG — conducted a survey a few years back in countries like the U.K., France, and the United States, they found that “people in mature markets have had enough of excess,” that they are “tired of the push to accumulate more,” and that half have thrown out or thought about throwing out stuff in recent years.
They also discovered that two in every three think they would be better off if they lived more simply — with less stuff, in other words.
When the same advertising agency repeated the survey in 2014, they reported that “many of us feel weighed down by our own excess,” that “a majority of us could live happily without most of the goods we own” (their italics, not mine), and that “two-thirds of us make it a point to rid ourselves of unneeded possessions at least once a year.”
If these numbers are right, that means there are around 240 million in the United States and 40 million in the U.K. who are actively “de-Stuffocating,” and who would prefer a simpler life with fewer material things.
Maybe you feel it too. Have you had enough of excess? Are you tired of the push to accumulate more? Would you, truth be told, be happier if you had fewer things than you have right now? Take a trip through the cupboards, drawers, and shelves of your homes, in the quiz below, to find out if you are also suffering from Stuffocation.
TAKE THE QUIZ: HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH OF STUFF?
1. Do you feel like your possessions bring you (a) more joy or (b) more stress?
2. Is (a) everything well organised throughout your home, or (b) are there “clutter ghettos” — no-go zones you can’t use and don’t dare enter because of all the stuff that needs clearing out?
3. When someone you live with brings something home is your typical response (a) “why didn’t we think of that before” or (b) “but where are we going to keep it”?
4. Do you (a) only have possessions you use regularly, or (b) do you keep things because they represent the person you would like to be — like the classic novels you really should read, the guitar you’re definitely going to learn to play, or the clothes that will fit once you’ve reached your ideal size?
5. Do you (a) find it fairly easy to manage your belongings, or (b) do you wish that a “clutter fairy” would show up and organise everything for you, figuring out what you really need, and getting rid of the rest?
6. Do you (a) wear everything in your closet, or (b) do you have clothes you haven’t worn for more than a year or more?
7. If you want to hang a new dress or shirt in your wardrobe, is it (a) easy to pop it in there, or (b) do you have to heave the stuff that’s already there left and right to make a gap, then jump in with the new thing before the gap closes up again?
8. Does (a) everything fit inside your drawers, or (b) when you open a drawer, do clothes pop out like they’re trying to get some air?
9. When the kitchen looks clean and tidy, like a picture in an interiors magazine, is it (a) like that behind the doors too, or (b) are all those cupboard doors camouflage for the bedlam behind?
10. If you have a garage, do you (a) park your car in there, or (b) is it packed so full with stuff, there’s no room for cars?
11. Do all your belongings (a) fit in your home, or (b) do you have so many you rent storage space?
12. Does “retail therapy” (a) pick you up or (b) leave you feeling deflated?
13. Are you (a) happy with our current materialistic culture, or (b) do you worry that it is, from an environmental point of view, like the proverbial frog in the saucepan as the water slowly comes to the boil?
14. Are you (a) happy with, or (b) do you feel like there’s something wrong with, a society that places so much importance on the ownership of physical objects?
15. Think back to the last time someone gave you something in the last year. Perhaps it was at Christmas, when Auntie Doreen and Uncle Peter held out a gift-wrapped box. Maybe it was your birthday, when your mother really shouldn’t have, but did, and handed over something, she said, was just the perfect thing for you. Was your gut reaction to think (a) “can’t wait to see what it is” or (b) “not more stuff”?
If your answer was (b) to any of these questions, you too are suffering in some way from Stuffocation.
Excerpted from Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever by James Wallman with permission of Spiegel & Grau.
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