Suffocation: Living More with Less by James Wallman

Reviewed by Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD

Around seventy percent of US economy is dependent on consumer spending. The more people buy stuff, more demand is created. This leads to more jobs, and more tax collected by the government. This generates the numbers like gross domestic products (GDP) and per capita income by which we measure economy and performance. Thus most government policies directly or indirect encourages more consumer spending. It is no surprise that we have more shopping malls, than parks in Atlanta. Aristotle said that all human pursue happiness although they differ in ways to achieve that, which later was adopted by the founding fathers in the declaration of Independence. All this prosperity leads us to buy and accumulate stuff over time. Is this excess stuff making us happy? The author James Wallman tries to answer this and several other questions in his book titled Suffocation. The author begins with a poignant example from his childhood "Remember those days when you'd wake up and the snow was so thick the roads were blocked, the train would not run , and the weatherman stays at home ? You'd put some warm clothes and get hold of a sled - ideally your gear would include ski gloves and one of those wooden sleds Austrians use, you would have so much fun wearing wooly gloves, and ride on a sled. Then you would go sledging for a stolen day of magic. The next day paper would scream that the cost to the economy was billions. The economy! You'd think. Who cares about the economy? We were sledging."

Economist Richard Easterlin argued in his 1974 article "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence" that happiness at a national level does not increase with wealth once basic needs are fulfilled. Other researchers also noted that materialistic people tended to be less happy. The author writes "Even when material goods are helpful in signifying status, they create more problems. Because in today's meritocratic society having goods signifies success and equally not having goods signifies failure. As a result, we are not only smugly or painfully aware of who is above or below us in the pecking order. We also can know we can clamber up or slip don the rankings at any moment. In this game of snakes and ladders, the game never stops and everybody is a competitor...Mass produced goods, which are the natural product of the system, are the worst of all. They are so stripped of meaning and novelty that they have little chance of genuinely exciting or inspiring us. The monotony of the mass production is fully matched by the monotony of its product. So we quickly become bored with the goods we have and, in search for novelty move on to the next thing, and begin the process again." Psychologist Oliver James in his book Affluenza, asserted that the more a society replicates the materialistic United States, the higher the rate of emotional distress among its people.

But nobody wants to give up money. Money can save life, give power, and provide security. . It can pay off for education, treatment, travel, hobbies, retirement and disability. The next question becomes how to spend it wisely? For many years, psychologists debated what is the best use of money to generate happiness - is it buying expensive stuff or indulging in experiences. The question was finally resolved when psychologists Gilovich and van Boevn through a series of experiments found out that experience make people happier than material possessions. The author writes "If you want to be happy, you should spend your time, money and energy on experiences rather than material possessions...Life is not about having things, but having good experiences...In that system, where more is always better, you can never have enough. You can never fulfill your side of the happiness equation. Instead ... you are always scrambling to get more, to keep up, to catch up, and to overtake. But no matter how hard you try and how much you gather, you can never feel like you've truly made it...One consequence of this is that people sacrifice too much life to get more stuff".

Material things cause two fold problems. First you have to work hard to accrue them over time. Second, you have to keep them organized for use. In a landmark study spanning over 4 years, UCLA researchers observed thirty two Los Angles family. The findings later published as "the Life at Home in the 21st Century" showed a staggering number of possessions and clutter. They found that people had too much possessions and too little time. Wallman quotes from the study -"Adults were spending little time outside in their gardens- less than fifteen minutes per week on average, even though they had often spent a lot of money on fancy barbeques and outdoor dining sets. They were surprised how child centric the houses were. Thirty one of thirty three homes had things on display in the living room - like plaques, ribbons, trophies, certificates, and beauty contest tiaras- that showed off how well the kids were doing. They were astounded to see how much stuff people had. The smallest home of 980 sq ft contained two bedrooms and a living room alone had 2260 items. The count was of all the things visible. On average watch family had 39 pairs of shoes, 90 dvds, 139 toys, 212 cds, 90 dvds and 438 books and magazines. They were messy. Toys were in the wrong place... There were things in hallway, garage, bathroom, and living room. The researchers concluded that because of the sheer number of artifacts, people own today and because we are living in a materially rich society - there is a material saturation and an extraordinary clutter crisis".

Clutter is a serious problem in the developed countries. It adversely impacts our mental health. "Clutter causes stress- psychologist calls it allostatic load. This is the wear and tear clutter puts on our system from watching out for it, picking it up, and clearing it away. Stress causes clutter, because it leaves women with less energy to clear up when she goes home. It affects women more than men. Women are more likely to have stress response as measured by change in cortisol levels when they describe their homes as messy, disorganized and chaotic. It may be because culturally a woman takes more responsibility for the home, and are therefore more likely to get stressed out by a home full of clutter..." writes the author.

What motivates people to buy stuff or go for a vacation or work harder? Wallman quotes two distinct motives. "Either people do things because of intrinsic motivation, which means doping it for its own sake, because they personally find it interesting or enjoyable: eating an ice cream, skimming a stone across water, or singing in the shower. Or people do something because of extrinsic motivation, which means doing it with some other aim in mind, like getting a reward or impressing people: eating kale, for example or filling an expense sheet, or the ridiculous clothes you bought as a teenager so that people would think you looked cool. You are more likely to be happy, so studies have shown, if you do something for intrinsic reasons. This is a useful insight, but a hard one to make use of, because it is difficult to look inside yourself and work out weather your motivation in intrinsic or extrinsic. Think about taking on a triathlon. You like the challenge to be physically fit, but you also enjoy telling people that you have conquered it. Now apply the same thinking to a dress, or other stuff you bought...Psychologists have discovered that, on the whole, we are more likely to buy material goods for extrinsic reasons, and more likely to do something for intrinsic enjoyment... Also experience brings you closer to people and connect with others."

The author also discusses the psychological origins of our love for materials. Since the advent of agriculture and population explosion, majority of the people had to worry about food and essential goods. Through the human history most of the people across the world has lived in severe food and material shortage. Only industrial revolution and the use of fossil fuels, fertilizers made food and stuff relatively cheaper. We also like to consume more calories than needed; the trait passed down from evolution; as excess calories stored as fat has survival advantage during the times of food shortage. Thus unless we use rational constraint, our instincts will always urge us to eat and accumulate more. But the good news is - human have free will which can be used to control unhealthy instincts. The author sites several stories of people and their choices to live a simpler and content life. He narrates how many rich and successful people including the millennial are spending time and resources on experiences instead of splurging on typical status symbols like clothes and car. Each of us has to decide for ourselves what is valuable. In the end we need to strike a balance, and this book provides enough insight to achieve that. Overall a good book which raises critical questions and a good read for all living in relative material abundance.

Dr. Panchajanya 'Panch' Paul, MD, ABIHM, ABPN, FAPA - is an American Board certified - Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine, and a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He holds an adjunct faculty position at Emory University School of Medicine; University of Georgia, and University of Central Florida School of Medicine. Call 7704541252 or email to schedule an appointment with Dr.Paul at Georgia Behavioral Health Professionals. He is also the author of 2 books- Stress Rescue and Sleep Coaching available at Amazon.