I have a history of having a restless desire to re-invent things – our living space, my career, my lifestyle, even small changes to my appearance (at the moment, I’m considering dyeing my hair plum or purple, which I’ve only done briefly with very sedate colours as a teen). I worry a lot that this points to some neurotic dissatisfaction with life in general. More often than not, though, it is because I enjoy being challenged in some way – to make something different, to try new skills, to change my approach when something isn’t working.
New ideas, books, websites, suck me in whilst I evaluate them and decide whether or not they are worth consideration. I think this is why, though I haven’t used my degree in an official way, that I loved the challenge of studying. Yes, education is expensive and sometimes I wince at how all my savings went into my MA, but ultimately, for me, education was all about challenge, novelty and that unquenchable thirst for ideas, deeper thinking, the analysis of the world around us. You can get a similar effect from self-study, from applying your knowledge in research projects, and adopting a critical mindset towards the materials you are analysing.
So, in the past few months, I’ve been considering a number of different ideas. The first one is inspired by the book Stuffocation: Living More With Less by James Wallman. Interestingly, the message of the book is not what I was expecting – I was expecting it to be more about decluttering and ‘living with less’ – but it is instead about the shift to experientialism, the idea that we are moving away from ‘stuff’ as the route to happiness and instead towards ‘experiences’ as a marker of a happier and more fulfilling life. He doesn’t discount that sometimes, ‘things’ can be the gateway into experiences, such as books, films, games and media, but that general ‘stuff’ can clog up our lives and make us feel overwhelmed and stressed (not to mention having a drastic effect on the environment).
The goal here is not to get rid of everything you own, but to choose wisely and spend more of our time and money doing things that we love to do, that we’ve always wanted to try, and that we are passionate about. That might mean drastic changes, or it might mean a few simple changes – choosing an experience over a new ‘thing’, for example. I don’t think he means to say that if you need to replace something, you shouldn’t, more that it’s about the value something gives to your life, and at times you need to choose one over the other.
The good news is that making these choices is something you can fit in with who you are and what you enjoy, and what you like doing with your friends and family. Obviously things like travel and some experiences are expensive, but there’s no reason why you can’t adopt a mindset of saving for certain things, or trying budget options. I think of a trip to the cinema as an ‘experience’ now, more than a regular thing, simply because of how expensive it is, but that means I’m more likely to choose to see films that I really want to see.
It also means being creative, when you don’t have as much money as you’d like. For example, having a home-made movie night, or meeting people in public meeting places (like the Royal Festival Hall in London) where there is less pressure to spend money. Experiences don’t need to be a big, overblown affair – they can be the simple things in life, appreciated more fully. I’ve found that appreciating things – some intangible, like a sunset or rain, or a hug or good conversation, or tangible, like the first coffee of the day, or reading a book – is one route to contentment and gratitude, especially when the more expensive, harder to achieve things seem out of reach.
Some objects we already have are full of meaning or have stories, whilst some are simply attractive or useful. I’m not sure what the right balance is for everyone – we all have certain points at which we feel crowded and overwhelmed by ‘stuff’. For me, especially, I have a lot of books, but have been using my Kindle far more often over the past two years. There is nothing like having books though. When I look at them, I’m reminded of stories and adventures, and re-reading is always a possibility. I’ve discovered that everything having a place is the most important thing, and occasional clear-outs – maybe twice a year – help me feel a little more in control. I’m not as sentimental as I used to be – if something is that important, I’ll find a way to make a memento of it, or take a photo.
If anything, the sadnesses of this year have taught me a lot about what is most important to me. I’m still working on filling my life with new projects, experiences, and different ways of living my values. You could say that my thirtieth year hasn’t been the happiest, but in the end, I still have hope and optimism. It’s a long term thing, making a life, not something that can be resolved in a season or even a year. You adopt the habits that are most meaningful and work for you, rather than follow what other people think is best.
‘If our culture is to evolve and find the answer to Stuffocation, we will need to build a new value system. This new system will have to cast light on all the dark sides that came with materialism – like overconsumption, pollution, anxiety, and stress. It should also take advantage of all the opportunities available today – like the technologies that give us the benefits of access without the downsides of physical ownership.’ – James Wallman, Stuffocation.