The message is ‘Less is more,’ more or less

by
06 March 2015

James Wallman's new book argues that having more does not make us happy. Cole Moreton tackles his assumptions

PA

Christmas stuffing: shoppers at the ASDA store in Wembley, north-west London, on Black Friday 2014

Christmas stuffing: shoppers at the ASDA store in Wembley, north-west London, on Black Friday 2014

WE SHOULD buy less stuff, and spend more of our time and money on doing things, having experiences, and engaging more fully with the glory of being alive.

It is a good thought, and one that resonates with a long and strong tradition of simpler, better living in Christianity - not to mention the other religions of the world. It is also the theme of a new book, Stuffocation, just published by Penguin.

"Materialism is making millions of us feel joyless, anxious, and, even worse, depressed," James Wallman says. He is using the word "materialism" to mean our desire to buy stuff. He should know. He used to work as a futurologist, predicting trends so that companies such as Marks & Spencer and BMW could use the knowledge to sell us more, well, stuff. But he has gone off all that.

Wallman has had a road-to-Damascus experience - except he wouldn't put it that way. As we sit in a pub near his home in Hammersmith, it becomes obvious that this chipper, youthful 40-year-old has little time for the Church, beyond its being a means of controlling the population, and less knowledge of what faith has done for people over the centuries.

Wallman is a nice chap who has come upon the gospel truth that designer goods will not set you free; but he has come to it by a peculiar route, and has not much idea of the spiritual heritage of the things that he is saying.

Let him speak for himself: "Doing things is much more interesting than material things. . ." So, what is "stuffocation"?

"Stuffocation is two things. First, it's when you open up your wardrobe, and it's full of stuff to wear, but there's nothing you actually want to put on.

"Or it's that feeling you get when somebody goes to give you something at Christmas - the Homer Simpson cup-and-socks combo, that kind of clutter - and they're just handing you the problem of taking it back, or getting rid of it. The sense that we generally have too much stuff in our lives and our homes."


SURELY there is more to it than a surfeit of socks? "It's the recognition that the materialistic consumer system that we exist in is bad for us. We've got to do something about it. We're suffocating from too much stuff."

That makes us stressed and depressed, he says. "I talked to a number of psychologists, because people are more depressed nowadays than they used to be. You ask how they are, and they might mumble and say, 'Oh, I'm OK.' No one thinks they're doing well. What is wrong with us?

"We have more material well-being than anybody since for ever. We have central heating, we have nice homes, we have wall-to-wall carpet. We actually live better lives than the Queen of England 100 years ago, and we all say 'Oh, it's all right.' It's just madness."

If he means Queen Mary, consort of George V, her life was pretty plush. And, actually, I have a bit of a problem with this "we". What about the people currently living in poverty? What about the million who had to turn to foodbanks for help last year? And that is only in this country: what about the billions across the world living on a dollar a day? They don't feel stuffocated, do they?

Wallman smiles. "I'm not saying the book is for everyone. There will be lots of people who do recognise what I am saying." And is his message to them, "Buy less and do more"? "In short."

Wallman is not an anti-capitalist, or against consumerism. He likes stuff. He does, however, suggest a radical decluttering of your life, and gives advice on how to do it. "I have much less stuff, hardly any shirts now." But he has two bikes, and lives in a terraced house in Hammersmith which must be worth a great deal of money.

"I don't want to smash the system. The best way to turn a horse is to ride it in the direction it's going. I don't have a problem with consumerism. I think it's given us so much magic, and incredible material well-being. It's made life on earth really awesome for tens of millions of people. That's because of the consumer revolution, and the value system of materialism. But I think it has gone too far. It has gone too far."


SO, HE is not advocating a total rejection of consumerism: rather, a move from consuming goods to consuming experiences: using the same time and energy with which people like him might pursue the iPhone 6, for example, to pursue white-water rafting, running barefoot on a beach, or just spending time playing with the children.

Wallman believes that this is happening already, among the well-off, stuffocated Western capitalists his book is aimed at. "It's a social trend. I think it's the most important trend of the 21st century."

Why, then, does he think experiences are more important than stuff? "There's a whole bunch of reasons. One of them is something called 'flow'.

"The simplest way to think about that is if you were to buy a pair of shoes. However much you liked those shoes, you wouldn't focus on those shoes as you went about your day. Whereas, if you were cycling through traffic, swimming underwater, diving off a diving board, or singing with a choir in church, you are much more likely to be in the moment, doing that thing - in the zone, as an athlete would call it. Or in the flow, which has been named by this Hungarian-American psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as essential for happiness."

Prayer offers the same experience, he says. "I'm trying to say some churchy stuff." Never mind that, I say. Readers of the Church Times swim, cycle, do kick-boxing, and climb mountains, too. "One of the really interesting things about diving into something, and then coming out the other side, is that you have an enhanced sense of identity: you feel kind of calmer, and more centred. I don't have the answer why: I'm just a writer; but it works."

Wallman gave up a well-paid job to preach his own truth. The most powerful part of the book is when he describes the day his grandfather died, having just handed to his grandson an envelope containing a £5 note, and a message urging him to enjoy life: "Memories live longer than dreams." That made him begin to ask how he should live in order to be happy.

Then his daughter was born. "I was looking for meaning. You know: 'What kind of world is she going to grow up in?' I started putting my thoughts together just after she was born; she is three-and-a-half now, and it took me two years to research and write the book."


HE SOUGHT out the experiences of people who have taken a different approach to life, including the self-styled minimalists who purge their lives of everything they do not need. He thinks that they are exciting and trendy. I think they sound like St Columba and his followers on Iona, a long time ago, and a long way from fashion.

Wallman is good - brilliant, in fact - on the way in which our thoughts and desires have been shaped by advertising and business over the past century, building stuff that is designed to break, and stoking us up into a blaze of desire for material goods.

But he is poor at acknowledging all those believers - of all kinds - who said no, that is not the way - all those people who, going back centuries to Christ himself and beyond, said that being human was about more than having things.

If he thinks of them at all, it is as party-poopers, when in fact they were having a high old time communing with the glories of the universe.

There is no mention of Jesus's telling the rich young man to give up all his wealth, no mention of the disciples' being sent out with just a change of shirt, or the dramatic change in the believers after the day of Pentecost, when tongues of fire were followed by a conversion to a radically simpler, fairer, communal way of living.

There is no mention of the strong tradition in Christianity of people saying that money cannot buy you happiness, or speaking truth to power. Instead, there are just three or four paragraphs on the Church, as an institution used to keep people in their place.

"The Church became a vehicle to control society," he says. "They have used the tenth commandment - thou shalt not be materialistic, you could call it - to manage people: to say 'There is nothing going to change here, happiness will come in the next life.'"


WALLMAN could have been harder on the Church, of course. He could have attacked all the wealth, gold, art, and buildings that it has accumulated over the centuries. The Pope and the Archbishop must look like kings of bling to Wallman, who is reluctant to believe that many Christians are singing from the same hymn sheet as he is.

I ask him where he is coming from, in terms of faith. "I went to Sunday school when I was a kid. My parents aren't particularly religious. I've been drawn to churches quite a lot over the past couple of years, funnily enough. I go and sit in them when they are empty.

"Last Remembrance Day, I went and sat on my own in church; it was lovely. I'll go and sit and give thanks, but I can't go to a service. Some of the stuff they say, I know it's supposed to be poetry representing truth; but, to me, it's just too daft: it doesn't make sense. I think it's a much more personal connection that we each have with whatever that thing is that we can call God, or love, or whatever."

We argue to and fro for the next hour, developing a respect for each other's point of view. "So you say that what I'm saying has been said before in a strand of Christianity, which is one of the most important philosophies ever? Maybe what I'm doing here is writing my response in the 21st century to answer the question 'How shall we live in order to be happy?'"

Maybe that is right. Maybe Wallman is a decent man, writing according to his own light. Maybe we can learn from each other. Stuffocation is full of insight and wisdom about the modern world, if you can forgive him everything he doesn't know.

It will resonate with a number of believers (and should be required reading for a lot more). So, as the sun goes down, I find myself enjoying the experience - more than, say, a new pair of shoes - and think: "Maybe I won't tell him to get stuffed, after all."

Stuffocation: Living more with less by James Wallman is published by Penguin at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99).

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