Does more 'stuff' really make you happy?

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Many of us are burdened with a brooding sense of nagging discontent -- at least occasionally. To offset these feelings, we may work longer, shop harder or acquire more and more things. However, by refocusing your time and financial resources on experiences instead, you'll banish those feelings and find joy while also avoiding depressing debt, says "Stuffocation" author James Wallman.

No stranger to luxurious pleasures, Wallman is a London-based trend forecaster who counts Absolut, Burberry and BMW among his clients. But as lovely as such stuff and other items may be, he says, their power to produce lasting happiness is weak. Where will you find it? In people, parks, playgrounds, parties and places both near and far, says Wallman, whose book was released in January 2014. 

Q: Let's begin with the basics: Why is wanting stuff bad? There's a chapter in your book about a woman who has a closet like a department store. That's many people's dream! 

A: A lot of people do have that dream. There are still people who aspire to have these massive mansions, too, and filling them with things. They think that will make them happy. That's fascinating to me, because that's actually quite an odd idea. More importantly, having lots of stuff won't make you happy. It's not that "stuff" is inherently a bad thing, though. Some stuff is essential. It's having too much that's bad. And it is believing that more stuff will make you happy that's negative -- because it's wrong.

If you realize that's how you're living, you need to reassess. Once you realize the walk-in closet doesn't make you happy, that the big house doesn't and being superbly affluent doesn't, it's time to rethink about what really does. You can start by thinking about your bucket list. Where do you want to go, what do you want to do?

Q: Yes, this "experience" you reference. But it's not always easy to pinpoint the intangibles. Not everyone has a "must-do" bucket list. 

A: The book is like a menu of ideas to get people started. It's full of stories of real people living more rewarding alternatives to the mainstream, materialistic model. The medium chill [a way of life that embraces hard work in the beginning, then slowing down to savor the fruits of that labor], for instance, is about spending more time with your kids [rather] than more time at work. It supports the idea that it's OK to say, "Thanks, but no thanks," when your boss offers you a promotion that will give you less time to spend with them.

That sounds simple, but it's actually a big idea. Because saying "no" to a promotion, if you think about it, goes against what we've been taught. That sounds like it would be hard to do, but I think people can learn to focus on experiences instead of stuff -- and that becomes much easier once you remember that social scientists have now proved that experiences are more likely to make us happy than material things. Experiences, for one thing, bring us closer to other people. Since we are social animals, since we are designed to hang out in groups, that tends to make us happier.

To be clear here, I'm not saying "don't spend money." I'm saying "Spend money on experiences rather than material things." Join a group. Do something -- even if it's just going to the cinema.

One of the funniest things about experiences being better than material goods at making us happy is that even talking about experiences makes you happier. Scientists have proved that we're happier when we talk about experiences, and we prefer people who talk about experiences. Think about it -- given a choice, would you prefer to listen to someone talking about their recent holiday or their new couch?

Q: How do you think credit cards influence consumption of unnecessary items, and what ways would you recommend people maintain control?

A: Credit cards can get out of hand, but they can also be great. The magic of having a card is that you can see where you're spending and reassess. Remember, I'm not anti-spending, I'm anti-spending on things that you think will make you happy and then you find out that they don't.

The thing is, credit cards aren't evil, but the way they're marketed can be. I remember hearing a woman at a credit card company talking about how the brand's credit card "really helps people buy all the stuff they need in life to make them happy." And I'm sorry, but that is evil! Because she was talking about them buying pointless presents and stuff they don't need -- and it's just not true.

The book "Your Money or Your Life" is good to read, because it deals with debt and savings and priorities and emotions. I also like the app called gottafeeling . You track your moods, and that helps with money decisions. I talked to a woman who said she uses it, and she said it helped her use her credit card in a totally different way. She loves cupcakes and spent a lot of money on them with her cards. With the app she identified that most of her cupcake intake happened on a Tuesday afternoon in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Then she realized it was happening right after she'd seen her personal trainer! So she arranged to meet her somewhere else -- and cut her cupcake consumption by 70 percent!

Mint is good, too. It helps you know and think about your spending. I'd love to use it,but it doesn't work in the U.K. Note to Mint: please offer a version for Brits soon!

Q: Imagine walking into a big box store. What's your immediate reaction?

A: I can't stand the places, so I get in and get out as quickly as possible! The message of "Stuffocation" is not anti-stuff, though. It's not anti-shopping. The message is anti-having too much stuff, and having a lot of not-very-good stuff. One of the key messages is that you, me, all of us -- we should all have fewer but better things.

Q: Why do people overspend on things that don't matter and just wind up in debt? What is the psychological motivation? 

A: You're talking behavioral economics now. One reason is the keeping up with the Joneses mentality: That "Wow, I really like that car in my neighbor's driveway, and now I want one" feeling. Competition and keeping up with peers is natural.

Then when clothes and other material items seem so cheap, and you have credit cards to pay for them, well, suddenly you have too many things and owe too much. It taps into our reaction to a sense of scarcity. The people who survived hard times ate everything they could at that moment. They grabbed everything they could hold. But now in this century we have abundance, we don't need to do all that. Those tools for survival -- so essential in earlier times -- are now hurting us. Trained to cope with scarcity, we are struggling with abundance. Now that food is abundant and cheap,  we have the obesity epidemic. Now stuff is abundant and cheap -- and specially with the creation of consumer credit -- we have so much stuff we're in a clutter crisis. And this social problem I call "stuffocation."

Q: Are you getting push back from people not wanting to change the way they shop? 

A: Some tell me that I'm not going far enough. When you think about the concept of doing versus having, it becomes obvious that having is a zero sum game. If I talked about that more, people will think I'm trying to smash the system. I'm not! I'm not advocating Buy Nothing Days . But if you change the way you look at money and things, you can set your life going in the right direction. We've got a lot of potential to happiness. We have abundance.

Q: How do you apply this to your personal life? You're a father -- what are some ways you're instilling these ideas in your family? 

A: We buy our child as few things as possible. Sure she has clothes, shoes and toys, but we try to emphasize doing things rather than having things. This Christmas, we didn't buy her any physical presents. We took her to see a show instead. She loved it, she'll remember it. That's experience. We also live close to London's Natural History Museum, and I take her there a lot, and the park, of course. She loves the swings.

Q: What is your reaction to the word "consumer" when it references individuals?

A: The word consumer grates on me. But I understand that businesses need to do that. If you're trying to sell something, you want to know who is buying. That's the consumer. But that's their terminology, I don't think it is how we should refer to ourselves.

Q: While we may be experiencing abundance here in the U.S., millions of people are struggling to get by. How is the trend of paring down applicable to them?

A: If you look at the world in material, economic terms, there is massive inequality. But if you look at the world another way -- in experiential terms -- the inequality gap isn't that great. Why? Because things don't matter. That guy over there may have material riches beyond anything, but if you earn less but spend more time with your family and friends, who is better off? When you shift your mindset, all of a sudden things change.

See related: How to spend money to buy happiness


The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.



This article appears in: Personal Finance , Credit and Debt

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