Conscious Spending: A Solution to Stuffocation


In a BBC viewpoint article about the hazards of too much stuff, trend forecaster James Wallman describes an American study documenting what most of us already know—that we have a lot of things in our houses.

According to Wallman, 2 out of 3 people wish they had less stuff. These people are experiencing what he calls stuffocation—an intriguing word that describes the feeling of drowning in stuff. Not surprisingly, the resulting clutter crisis leads to mental stress, which causes physiological symptoms such as elevated cortisol levels. In this way, the mental stress of excess damages our physical health.

I’m with him until he proposes that we solve the problem of excess stuff by spending our money on experiences instead of things. He bases this suggestion on recent research showing that happiness is more likely to come from experiences than from possessions.

That may be true in some ways, but it makes no sense to suggest that simply substituting experiences for things is going to resolve our issues of excess. Is this not just substituting one obsession for another? Could it not propel us to an excess of another kind?

We can just as easily drown in experiences as we can in material possessions. This is already the case for many North American children who are scheduled into multiple enrichment experiences each week. Psychologists now express concern about the stress these kids are under. The same applies to adults. I know many who rush from one experience to another. They are drowning in busy-ness, which is every bit as stressful as drowning in things.

I don’t want to discount the benefit of experiences. Indeed, they can greatly enrich our lives. What we need, though, is a different conversation. We should not be trying to solve the problem of excess from an either/or perspective. Instead of either possessions or experiences, we need to think about what will most enhance our lives. This is the focus of conscious spending.

The way I see it, conscious spending is a more constructive means of relieving the stress of excess. It shifts the game from “Should I buy this or buy that?” to a conversation about “What will help me make the life I want?” This results in a satisfying mix of both possessions and experiences, integrated to work for you.

Conscious spenders view their lives from an intentional simplicity paradigm. They are the 1 in 3 people who are satisfied with what they have because they’ve found the sweet spot of “enough.”

In Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, I said it this way: “How much is enough? Viewed from the intentional simplicity paradigm, “enough” is not a number—it is what is deeply satisfying. We indulge in excess when what we purchase is not fully satisfying. We try and try again, usually not realizing why we still want more.”

The diagram below is from the Financial Integrity manual published by the New Road Map Foundation. They explain: “Everything after the peak of the fulfillment curve is excess. We call it clutter” This is the point at which possessions become burdens and their owners become stressed.

Fulfillment Curve

The key to satisfaction with what we buy rests in how the decision is made, not what we spend on.

When we buy an excess of stuff or rush from experience to experience without stopping to think, we are in a mindless, unconscious state that usually doesn’t serve us well. Conscious spending is rooted in the opposite state—mindFULness.

Mindfulness is often associated with Eastern meditation practices, but there are other ways to engage mindfully in our lives. The mother of mindfulness, Harvard researcher Ellen Langer, defines mindfulness as the simple process of actively noticing new things.

As she explains it, the act of noticing brings our attention to the present. When we are in the present, we are more aware of the importance of context and perspective. This helps us think for ourselves, rather than reacting on autopilot. As a result, we make decisions that suit us better.

Langer’s research has found that increasing mindfulness decreases our stress and leads to greater health and happiness. Applying mindfulness and conscious spending principles in our daily lives seems a surer way to avoid stress than does buying experiences instead of things. Comments?

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2 thoughts on “Conscious Spending: A Solution to Stuffocation

  1. I love this blog. Good for you for taking on James Wallman’s “experience revolution” as a solution to “stuffocation” and a means to happiness, in such a meaningful way.

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