I’ve long been fascinated by the relationships between people and possessions. It’s a complicated, rich, emotionally-fraught bond. In the chapter on the Strategy of Distinctions in my book Better Than Before, for instance, I discuss the difference between over-buyers and under-buyers, and abundance-lovers and simplicity-lovers, and how those differences affect habits.
On this fascinating subject, James Wallman has a new book, Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More than Ever.
I was very interested to hear what James had to say about habits, possessions, happiness, and human nature.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
James: In a note my Granddad, Jack, gave me on the day he died, he wrote that “Memories live longer than dreams.” As you can imagine, I’ve thought about that note a lot since then. I now believe he meant that what matters in life isn’t material things but experiences. So I have an ingrained habit to spend as little (money, time, energy) as possible on stuff, and as much as possible on experiences. When I come to any decision, I ask myself: will this, at the least, create a memory? It’s a great habit because it informs everything I do, it makes making decisions so much easier. I buy far less stuff, and do more things. And it makes my life full of interesting experiences.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
The most important thing I’ve learned about forming healthy habits is the difference between the conscious and unconscious mind. Daniel Kahneman calls them System 2 and System 1 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein think of them, in Nudge, as Homo Economicus and Homer Economicus. And Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, describes them as like the elephant and the rider. These ways of seeing the conscious and unconscious mind have made it clear to me that you have to set things up to help yourself follow your habits. Your System 1, Homo Economicus, rider has to “architect choice” for your System 2, Homer Economicus, elephant—so it’s easy for you to follow any habit.
So, if you don’t want to eat chocolate, don’t have chocolate in the house. If you don’t want to drink beer, don’t go to the pub. If you don’t want to end up with more stuff, don’t go shopping. And then, don’t only not do something, but have something positive to head towards. Have an alternative, non-sugary treat in the house. Have another way to spend time with friends: go climbing, for a walk, to the cinema, or anywhere where beer or shopping isn’t the main activity.
By architecting choice, you (the rider) can steer the elephant in the right direction.
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Checking email! I’ve removed email from my phone so I can’t check it when I’m away from my computer.
Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
I believe in sacred time. I can’t multi-task anyway, but I find it’s too easy to get distracted (hello, email). So whatever I’m doing, I try to completely focus on it. I switch my cellphone to airplane mode when I go to the park with my kids, for instance. So instead of checking Twitter and catching up with friends by text (hah, getting rid of email only takes you so far!), I actually focus on hanging out with them.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I didn’t understand the categories till I’d taken the quiz, to be honest. But since I took the test and it says I’m a Questioner I totally get it. It’s me exactly: I question everything that I’m told, and I like to stick to things that matter to me. How else can any author be good at what they do? Our job is to question things, work out if they’re true, if they work, if they’re worth sharing. And then, we have to knuckle down and put hours, days, years, early mornings, late nights into bringing our passion from that idea that struck us at some obscure, quiet moment into the bright light of publication day. Hey, that’s how it’s been for this author at least!
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
I like to meditate early in the morning. It’s great for focusing the mind, setting up the day, getting things done. But I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old – and as often as not, they get up too. Hey, at least I get to hang out with them and have breakfast… which I guess is a healthy habit too.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
That note from my Granddad.
Do you embrace habits or resist them?
I’m realistic: we’re creatures of habit. So the best thing is to try to create good habits.
Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?
My Mum and Dad. They’ve always been very positive. It wasn’t that they pushed my brother and I, but they would always say: “It doesn’t matter how well you do, just do your best.” And they meant it. They didn’t judge us (or at least, I didn’t feel like they were judging us) on whether we succeeded or failed at something. They were happy if we’d had a go. And I think that’s a good practice, a good habit to have. Life throws all sorts of things at us: ups, downs, amazing surprises and frustrating setbacks. And if you know you’re doing all you can do, if you know you’re not wasting your opportunity, the result doesn’t matter. You can stand tall, be satisfied and happy with yourself, knowing you’re doing your best.