Stuff Vs. Experiences

It’s been proven that material things don’t make us happier. Once our basic needs of clothing, food, and shelter are met, more doesn’t equal better. It just becomes…excess.

This, as well as many other interesting psychological studies and statistics, are found in the book StuffocationThis book has a slightly different angle than some of the minimalism and simplicity books I’ve read in the past. Most of the books in this genre suggest the answer to society’s massive overconsumption problem is minimizing, downsizing and shedding the clutter. Author James Wallman has a different theory.

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The answer to the stuff problem, Wallman says, isn’t minimalism or simplicity. Those things are nice, but they will never take over society to the extent that materialism has. He has a point. In some ways “the simple life” can be quite complicated. People who opt out of the hustle and bustle of the daily grind might discover that living off the grid is harder than conforming to the status quo. Growing your own food from the ground up is easier said than done. (I’m a terrible gardener, at least right now I am.) Chopping firewood is much more difficult than simply programming a thermostat. And living alone in a cabin, while simple, can be downright boring and isolating for even the most introverted individual.

Minimalism, while freeing for those who are tired of the clutter and waste of overconsumption, can be equally frustrating when the competition turns from “must have” to “must get rid of.” Extreme minimalists will count every object they own, spending large amounts of money on custom multi-use furniture and tiny eco-homes. Seeing who can get by with the least amount of stuff has become a new status symbol in some circles. It’s a crazy, reversed form of materialism that is just as materialistic as its counterpart.

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Even minimalists can be materialistic in their approach.

No, Wallman says the answer to our overconsumption is primarily experiences. He predicts that in the future more and more people will build their lives around what they do rather than what they own. It’s an intriguing concept. Memories last a lot longer than mementos. And they don’t clutter the house. Win / win.

There’s drawbacks to this theory of experiences, of course. Social media makes it all too easy for experiences to be shared for the sake of comparison. This “extrinsic motivation” isn’t nearly as fulfilling and healthy as “intrinsic motivation,” which stems from our own curiosity and desire to explore. Still, it’s not entirely a bad thing that experiences can be shared online. We can learn a lot about someone by what they do in their spare time – things we would never know just from looking at them. And this social pressure to get out and do things rather than just acquire things could actually be a positive thing. 

Wallman lists several reasons why experiences might be the answer to dissatisfaction due to overconsumption, and backs them up with phycological studies. 

Reasons Experiences Make Us Happier than Possessions:

  1. Experiences are more prone to positive reinterpretation. Even when experiences go wrong, we can usually look back on them and laugh. There’s no real redeeming factor to a regretted purchase.
  2. Possessions are prone to hedonic adaptation. This is the phenomenon of needing more and more of the same thing to get the same level of thrill or satisfaction. It still can happen with experiences, but it’s much less noticeable.
  3. Experiences are harder to compare than material goods. You’re less likely to worry about your choice, worry about all the other options, and worry about the status implications. It’s quite easy to compare different generations of phones, or different years of cars. It’s nearly impossible to compare a trip to Spain to visit family with a cruise in Alaska. No two experiences are alike, and therefore, they are less likely to lead to comparison and dissatisfaction.
  4. We’re more likely to view experiences as contributing to our identities. We all strive to find or create ourselves when we shop for things, work our jobs, listen to music, and pursue hobbies and interests. Our view of ourselves is crucial to our happiness. Wallman suggests that experiences contribute far more than what we own to shaping our identity and our feelings about ourselves.
  5. Experiences bring us closer to other people. A shared experience – either present or past – will unite two people far more than driving the same car or owning the same earrings. I know I have an easier time meeting new people when we’re experiencing something together. There’s an instant connection and a starting point for a relationship to grow.
  6. Materialism leads to clutter. Clutter is an unintended consequence of overconsumption that, left unchecked, can lead to stress and unhappiness. Clutter can even cause family strife. It may seem like a minor inconvenience, but it is not something to be overlooked.
  7. Doing something rather than having it is more likely to engage you. Whether we know it or not, we all seek to be “in the zone.” When we’re in the zone, we feel alive, aware, and engaged in the moment. This state of appreciation and satisfaction is derived from doing, not from merely owning things.
  8. Your motivation is more likely to be intrinsic for experiences. While it is possible someone might do something like go to a concert or go golfing for the extrinsic purpose of social bragging, it is more likely that someone is doing these things for the inward, intrinsic value.

My biggest critique with this whole concept of “experiencing” the good life, is that it’s still looking for happiness in created things (even if they aren’t physical things) rather than the Creator. While I truly enjoy and thrive on experiences, I’ve found that in my life true happiness cannot be found without losing myself and looking to God for my identity.

Often the most fulfilling things are experiences where I totally forget about my own problems (and my own happiness) and focus only on serving someone else. It can be as simple as listening to a friend talk when they need a safe place, forgetting about my own agenda. Or lending a hand if someone needs childcare. Or hosting someone in my home even if I think I feel too tired to entertain. It’s a great contradiction to the “do what makes you happy” mentality, but I’ve found it to be true time and time again.

Perhaps experiences are the answer to overconsumption inasmuch as they help us see God better or connect with fellow humans. I’m still not 100% sure, but I think they might play a part in the equation.

My favorite points from the book relate not so much to stuff or lack of stuff, but to a new way of experiencing life in general.

Be Here Now.

My old choir director used to say “Wherever you are at, be there.” It was simple but true. While at choir practice, he wanted us to be 100% present, not thinking about all the other places we’d rather be. It meant we’d do a better job and we’d enjoy ourselves more. If you’re always wistfully off somewhere else, think about all that you might be missing out on right in front of you. And how does it make those around you feel if you’re never fully present with them? Distant? Unimportant? Uninteresting? Commit yourself fully to where you’re at and enjoy the synergy of being in that place and time fully.

Be Your Own Audience.

I put this into practice a while back when I took a month-long break from my phone and social media. I didn’t realize how much of what I did I did for the sake of posting! It was humbling. What would it feel like if I never posted anything that I did ever again? Would I feel fulfilled simply by doing without the sharing? It is hard because I love photography and writing, and those are big parts of social media. I probably take way too many photos for myself, much less Facebook and Instagram. I find it helpful to have the “not sharing” mindset when deciding whether or not to do something…even if I do end up sharing a pic or two afterward. Honestly ask yourself “If no one knew I was doing this would I still do it?”

Put People First.

Ask yourself how your experiences will draw you closer to other people. Will you make new friends if you sign up for that class? Will you and your spouse connect if you go on that trip? I thrive in social environments, but I’ll be the first to admit that meeting new people can be awkward and difficult. The key that I’ve found is to do something together. Maybe it’s volunteering. Maybe it’s running together. Maybe it’s grocery shopping. Shared experiences are a powerful way to drive relationships forward.

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Camping! It’s about the people, not the camping itself.

What are your thoughts on stuff vs. experiences? Is it a fair comparison? What about when our stuff gives us a good experience? Do you find intrinsic motivation to be more satisfying than the extrinsic motivations in your own life? If experiences aren’t the answer to the overconsumption problem, then what do you think is? 

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