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Are You Ready for the Experience Revolution?

Over the next few weeks here at the Network of Wellbeing (NOW) we will be focused on Sharing Our World: a series of activities timed to coincide with both Buy Nothing Day / Black Friday and the COP21 climate change negotiations. We hope that this series will spark reflection and debate on the links between consumerism, wellbeing and the environment, and there are many ways for you to share your views and get involved

To kick off the series, we're sharing this guest post and video interview from James Wallman, author of the bestselling book, Stuffocation. Wallman suggests that materialism is no longer working for us; it's not making us any happier and it's become bad for our societies and the environment. As an alternative he suggests we need to focus less on possessions and more on experiences, and that this switch in focus could instigate what he calls an 'experience revolution'. 

By James Wallman, author of Stuffocation

People often tweet to me, send me emails, post messages to me via Facebook and come up to me, saying: “Stuffocation changed my life”.  Which is nice, as it's changed mine too.

After reading the book, some people, so they tell me, have made sweeping changes. Others, smaller ones. There's Michelle, for instance, who feels like the book nudged her to appreciate the little moments she spends with her two young boys more. There's Katie, who now makes more time to have date-nights and date-days with her husband Crispian. And there's Daniele, who gave up his big “chief innovation officer” job at a global advertising agency, went round the world, and now works for himself. He was able to do all this, so he told me, because Stuffocation helped him realise he didn't need to spend so much on clothes from the fashion website Mr Porter each month.

Moving Beyond Materialism

Writing the book has changed my life too. I first approached Stuffocation from a cold, third-person, journalistic perspective. I was simply using my skills as a cultural analyst to work out how the world is changing. Having spent years thinking about this, and with enough evidence in place, I felt confident I could raise my head above the parapet and share my beliefs:

  • that our culture is fundamentally changing
  • that the problem of scarcity gave rise to materialism
  • that the problem of abundance is giving rise to what I call experientialism
  • instead of looking for happiness, identity, status and meaning in material things - “stuff” - we are now finding them in experiences instead

But as I researched the book and found out more about this change, something inside me shifted. I started to care more how the world was changing. And now, about a year after the book was published by Penguin, I've firmly made the jump from author to activist.

It might have had something to do with the birth of my two children. But it was certainly to do with two discoveries by psychologists that I came across in my research:

  • one, as per an experiment conducted by Darby Saxbe and Rena Repettia at UCLA, suggests that too much stuff is terrible for a person's health
  • the other, discovered by Tom Gilovich at Cornell University and Leaf van Boven at the University of Colorado, shows that experiences are more likely than material goods to lead to happiness

There are other benefits that come with experiences that convinced me to make the change.

The Benefits of 'Experientialism'

Besides being good for individuals, experiences have a number of other magical, free positives. They're good for society, and good for the environment. I base this statement on the decades of research that leading US psychologist Tim Kasser has conducted on the perils, downsides, noxious aspects of materialism. Materialistic people are less nice to others, they care less about society and the environment.

There's another aspect. If you read Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's best-selling book on inequality, The Spirit Level, closely, you'll see that their best attempt to make sense of why inequality is so bad for health seems to be associated with the pernicious effects of status. Again, experientialism can help. One of the reasons why experiences are better for happiness is because they are less comparable. They are comparable, of course, but the comparison is fuzzier.

If you own a Porsche and I a Nissan, it's clear who has the better car, and higher status. But if, for holidays, you go to a five-star resort in the Seychelles and sip chilled Champagne on the sun-kissed beach, while I go camping in Wales and drink warm beer on a windy beach, it's clear who's had the fancier holiday. But it's not clear who's had the better holiday. And so if we can switch our own, and the general world view, from materialism to experientialism, people are less likely to feel the pain of lower status, simply because it will be less clear that they have lower status. In fact, from an experientialist point of view — where experiences matter more than stuff — perhaps the camping trip to Wales has more status. (Consider the incredible rise of obstacle course races, like Tough Mudder.) This change from a materialistic viewpoint to an experientialist one significantly changes the conversation about inequality.

So if we can swing people away from materialism, we can make the world a nicer, greener place where people are less bothered about status, and therefore happier in every meaning of the word, including mood — how you feel now — and life satisfaction — how you feel about your life.

As I discovered more of the benefits of this idea of experientialism, it made me want to share this as widely as possible. So besides just writing the book, and sharing my view on how the world is changing, now I really want to make that change happen sooner.

The ‘Experience Revolution’

I call this the “Experience Revolution”: Just as materialism and the consumer revolution were the best ideas of the 20th century — as they resulted in a phenomenal, unprecedented step-change in standards of living, turning scarcity into abundance for the first time in human history — so I believe experientialism and this Experience Revolution could be the best ideas of the 21st century. Because they have the potential to solve many of the problems of abundance and transform quality of life.

What does that mean? To begin, let's look at the problems of abundance: the scarcity that defines a material-based economy, and the unhappiness, stress, and anxiety that comes with modern life. I think we'll stop wasting our time, money and lives on stuff that just helps us keep with what Robert H. Frank calls, "the positional arms race” of consumerism. We won't give up on stuff entirely. We'll shift our buying to things that give us experiences: think bicycles and board games, rather than more handbags and shoes we really don't need. We'll focus on doing things that matter more — in work, so we'll enjoy work more, and in our daily lives, so we'll have more interesting, exciting lives. To achieve the latter, we'll need more time off work. First we'll move to three-day weekends, as standard, for every weekend. We'll have longer holidays, again, as standard. Because who said five days on, two days off, and four weeks holiday was final goal of human achievement? If material advances — like running water, central heating, and power showers — were possible in the last hundred years, who says experiential leaps like these aren't possible in the next?

So, I want to spark an Experience Revolution — like Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. But whereas Oliver wants to make people healthier by encouraging people to eat less unhealthy food, more healthy food, I want to make people happier, by encouraging them to spend less of their precious time, focus and money on stuff and more on experiences instead.

Stuffocation has changed many people's lives. It's changed mine. I hope the Experience Revolution will change the lives of millions, perhaps billions, more. Including yours.

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Huge thanks to James for contributing this post to NOW's Sharing Our World series. To learn more about Stuffocation you can visit the website. James Wallman is also giving a talk about Stuffocation, organised with Action for Happiness in London on 2nd December. 

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