Sunday, 25 January 2015

bed time reading - 'Stuffocation' by James Wallman

A few years ago, if you'd have asked me what my dream house looked like, I would have told you that it was a minimalist, modernist white concrete cube with nothing it in but a bed and a few essentials, preferably designed by John Pawson. Over the years my tastes have changed, I like Nice Things (capital N capital T) and I like a few creature comforts. I also have a small library's worth of books (even though I almost halved my collection last year) and the idea of blank walls now leaves me cold. I still think I'm a minimalist at heart though. Clutter makes me physically uncomfortable and I still want to come home to a clean, tidy and neutral space at the end of the day (colour also makes me uncomfortable, at least in the context of me living with it or wearing it, to the extent there was a prolonged discussion in the office about me 'breaking out into colour' when I showed up for work in a black and navy sweater. Navy! How radical...)

John Pawson, Pawson House, London, 1999 © Jens Weber

While in theory, I would very much like my kitchen to look like this, in reality minimalism can be expensive. That might seem like an odd statement, but it's a idea that James Wallman touches on in his recently published book 'Stuffocation - Living More With Less'. The high minimalist, architectural led style epitomized by Pawson comes with a price. Sure, the occupants of this space haven't got flashy kitchen equipment on display, but that poured concrete worktop wasn't cheap, those chairs cost a few hundred pounds each and you can bet there's a beautifully simple but eye-wateringly expensive dinner service hiding behind those unobtrusive cupboard doors. It's also much easier to be a minimalist in a building with good architectural bones. It looks deliberate. If you take that level of minimalism to your average rented London flat it's probably just going to look like no one lives there.

When I started to read Wallmans book, I thought I was still pretty minimal. Books aside, I didn't think I had that much stuff, and what I do have is always tidy and put in its proper place. By the end of the book I was wondering why I had so much stuff I didn't use or even particularly like, cluttering up my home.

Starting with Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Milburn (aka The Minimalists) and their journey from 'material saturation' to minimalism, I was all set to get rid of almost everything I own and head for that white concrete cube. As the book progresses though, Wallman looks at many other ways of living with less and by the end you realize there's a middle ground and that anyway, full on minimalism isn't for everyone. Not everyone is going to give up everything to live in the woods (as he points out even Henry David Thoreau only manged that for about two years) or live a nomadic globe trotting life with nothing but a backpack and a laptop. That said, it becomes ever more apparent as you read that something has to be done. Too much stuff is bad for your physical and mental health, it's bad for your bank balance and it's terrible for the environment. The sheer amount of stuff we own is staggering. Think about it. Everything in your home. Multiplied millions of times across the country. Multiplied again across every country in the world, and replaced several times over your lifetime. The enormity of it it is almost too much to comprehend. Think about what you have in your home, how much of it do you really need, how much of it do you actually use on a regular basis? Not much is probably the answer to both those questions.

Image source: Evening Standard

One of the most startling things in the book, are the studies that look into the relationship between stress and clutter, clutter and debt and how both of those things can lead to depression. Unbelievably, the photo above is an estate agent photo of a flat up for sale. Just looking at that makes me feel stressed, I can't imagine how difficult it is to live in it, making a soothing cup of tea suddenly seems like a herculean task. Of course, these two images show the extreme ends of the spectrum. Most of us have too much stuff, but most of us probably make some effort to control it and tidy it away. Which throws up another question, how much time does your stuff use up? How much time to clean it, put it away, look for it when you need it? I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

So what's the answer? Wallman proposes several options but a combination of two make sense to me. By having less stuff, and getting rid of the desire to accumulate more, you should have more time, more energy and more money. This could have a knock on effect in many ways. You could have the resources to take up a new hobby, do that evening course you always wanted, move to a smaller home, but in a better/more interesting area, or take a pay cut to do a job you love instead of one that pays for all the stuff you don't need. He's also an advocate of experientialism. Having experiences rather than having things makes people happier in the long term and generally has less of an environmental impact. Studies show that the long term effects of spending our time and money on experiences (from a ski holiday to a picnic in the park) have a much more positive impact on our well-being that spending the same amount on a thing. Even if the experience wasn't perfect, we have the ability to look back and see only the positive things, or put a good spin on the bad elements and label them 'an adventure'. Making a regretful purchase however, is harder to forget or reconcile. An expensive pair of uncomfortable shoes you only wore once is going to to leave you out of pocket and with a taunting reminder in your wardrobe.

Wallman says that in the modern world, once we have our basic needs met (a safe place to sleep, enough things to live comfortably) any additional material gains don't make us proportionally any happier. Having one designer handbag might be thrilling and make you happy every time you use it... having twenty designer handbags however, doesn't make you twenty times happier. He also proposes that the tide against materialism is already turning. The amount of experience based spending has increased and explains things like Secret Cinema, pop up restaurants and the almost cult appeal of music festivals like Coachella and South By Southwest. It's not about having the latest thing anymore, it's having been to the latest thing, and as tickets are limited and the events are one offs or have limited runs, attendance is still a significant status symbol.

One thing that I can't stop thinking about, it the chapter titled 'How We Got Here: The Origins of Throwaway Culture' that covers how we evolved from thrifty make do and mend types, to full on over-consumers. I'm oversimplifying here of course, but we bought more because we were told to. Consumerism and planned obsolescence was born out of the overproduction that occurred in the United States at the end of the Great Depression. Logically, if there was too much stuff, the answer would be to produce less, but Herbert Hoover had a 'better' idea, and assigned the early Mad Man "the job of creating desire". We've been suckers for advertizing ever since and it's insane. Ever notice how adverts themselves are a form of visual clutter? For a very long time there was a whole tunnel connection in Kings Cross where the blank boards were ready, but no adverts had yet appeared. That tunnel, even when heaving at rush hour was a much calmer space that others in the station where adverts scream from every wall.

So, how do get yourself out of suffocation? The book offers several helpful tips:

The Bin Bag Method: Put everything you own in boxes and bags and over the course of a month (or maybe two) only take something out when you need to use it. At the end of the allotted time, get rid of everything left in the boxes and bags. This could be a really useful exercise even if done a room at a time and could be a particularly good way to help kids get rid of a mountain of toys. As a plus point, you can feel good about donating your things to a local charity.

The Did You Miss it Game: Bets played by couples or flatmates. Each person hides something belonging to another person in the house and and if they don't miss it after a set period of time, out it goes.

The Reverse Hanger Method: Put all your clothes on hangers and turn them all the same way. Once you use something, hang it back up the opposite way round. At the end of a set period of time, everything on the unused hangers gets donated to charity. 

Another tip is to digitize. I rebelled against this for a very long time, but actually, as all the music we listen to is either at a gig, or through a digital device, why do we have a stereo we never use and hundreds of CDs that we never play taking up valuable space? I have lots of big glossy books I love and look at, but the hundreds of paperbacks are destined for donation and if I want to read one of them again? I'll read them on my Kindle. Now there's a sentence that was unthinkable even a few months ago! I just want to feel like our flat can breathe, it feels... stuffocated.

He also offers tips for avoiding re-stuffocating and practical steps to help you become an experientialist through the section called 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Experientialists'.

So, if you're unhappy with your home, have an uneasy feeling about your possessions, feel like you're missing out on doing more exciting things, I urge you to read this book and start take action while you're reading it. You may come out committed to living with only 100 things, or you might be inspired to up sticks and move. Most likely though, you'll look around you and wonder why you ever needed all this stuff and start taking steps to a simpler, potentially much happier life.

Stuffocation by James Wallman is £9.99 and published by Penguin.

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1 comment:

  1. I am changing my mind toward my dream how in same way i am changing my mind about what to have on breakfast! One day I think it will be all white with touch off colour next day i am buying red metal tv cabinet! I just don't know what I will end up with! I like to dream about it. I like to imagine how it would look like and I start like the idea that it constantly change.. I know weird!