30th May 2024 – (Hong Kong) In Hong Kong, rows of towering skyscrapers and apartment blocks stretch as far as the eye can see. Inside those homes, a very different kind of clutter fills the space – mountains of material possessions, all gathered in the pursuit of status, security and the Hong Kong dream.

Stuffocation, a term coined by consumer trends forecaster James Wallman, is one of the biggest problems affecting modern societies. And nowhere is it more pronounced than in the hyper-capitalist playground of Hong Kong. As the city’s residents strive to own ever more property and material goods, are they ironically sacrificing their happiness and well-being in the process?

The numbers paint a stark picture. Hong Kong has the least affordable housing in the world, with sky-high property prices forcing many to downsize into ever-smaller “micro-flats” – some as little as 115 square feet. Yet despite the cramped conditions, the average Hong Kong resident owns a staggering 2,000 material possessions. Closets, shelves and storage spaces groan under the weight of gadgets, clothes, homeware and knick-knacks that have accumulated over the years.

“Materialism has become an obsession in Hong Kong,” says sociologist Dr. Jane Lau. “The pursuit of wealth and status through ownership of property and luxury goods is seen as essential to living the ‘Hong Kong dream’. But it’s having a devastating impact on people’s mental health and overall wellbeing.”

Indeed, studies show a clear correlation between materialism and a range of psychological disorders, from depression and anxiety to hoarding and OCD. In a city where display of wealth is paramount, many Hong Kongers feel the constant pressure to keep up with their peers, acquiring more and more possessions to boost their social status.

“The anxiety around not having the latest smartphone model or the most fashionable designer handbag is palpable,” says Lau. “People are sacrificing their happiness, their relationships, even their physical health, all in the pursuit of ever-more stuff.”

However, just as materialism has taken over in Hong Kong, a counter-movement is quietly emerging. Spearheaded by millennials and Gen Z, a growing number of young people in the city are rejecting the relentless accumulation of possessions in favour of a new philosophy – experientialism.

The core tenet of experientialism is that experiences, not material goods, are the true path to happiness and fulfilment. Instead of spending their hard-earned cash on the latest must-have gadget or designer label, experientalists invest in experiences that enrich their lives – travel, classes, events, adventures.

“Experientialism is really about shifting your mindset from ‘having’ to ‘being’,” explains Wallman. “It’s about finding joy and meaning through experiences that expand your horizons, challenge you to grow, and create lasting memories – rather than temporarily satiating your desire for status through stuff.”

The rise of this philosophy has been driven in part by research in positive psychology, which shows that experiences tend to provide more enduring happiness than material possessions. A 2010 study by Cornell University, for example, found that the thrill of acquiring a new object fades much faster than the joy of a life experience.

“Experiences become a core part of our identity and sense of self,” says Wallman. “When I think back on my life, the moments and memories that mean the most to me are the experiences I’ve had – the trips I’ve taken, the classes I’ve attended, the concerts I’ve been to. The stuff I’ve accumulated over the years is largely forgettable.”

This shift away from materialism is evident in the changing spending habits of young Hong Kongers. According to a 2020 survey, millennials in the city spend 30% more on travel, leisure and dining out than on physical goods – a marked contrast to their parents’ generation, who prioritized saving for a home deposit and lavish material displays of wealth.

“The experientialism trend is really taking hold, especially among younger Hong Kongers,” says Lau. “They’re much more interested in curating a life of enriching experiences than accumulating possessions. It’s a major cultural shift that could have profound implications for the city’s economy and society.”

Of course, breaking free of Hong Kong’s deep-rooted materialism isn’t easy. The city’s culture is steeped in the pursuit of status symbols, from owning a luxury apartment to wearing the latest designer fashions. And the marketing machinery of multinational brands continues to relentlessly fuel this consumer culture.

“Brands know exactly how to leverage our innate human desire for status and belonging,” says Wallman. “They’ve become masters at turning material goods into must-have lifestyle accessories that promise to unlock social esteem and personal fulfilment. It’s an incredibly powerful – and lucrative – model.”

However, the tide does seem to be turning. Younger Hong Kongers, in particular, are increasingly rejecting the notion that happiness can be purchased. They’re looking for more meaningful ways to spend their time and money – ways that align with their values and enrich their lives.

Take the example of Michelle, a 29-year-old marketing executive. Rather than splurging on another Chanel handbag or the latest smartphone, she’s been funnelling her disposable income into experiences that nourish her mind and body.

“Last year, I went on an amazing yoga retreat in Bali,” she says. “It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I came back feeling refreshed, grounded and inspired – not to mention the incredible memories I have of practising meditation on the beach at sunrise.”

Michelle has also invested in a series of language and cooking classes, allowing her to explore new hobbies and connect with like-minded people. And instead of buying the latest fashion trends, she’s curated a versatile capsule wardrobe that she can mix and match.

“I used to feel this constant pressure to keep up with my friends and colleagues when it came to material goods,” she admits. “But I realised that the stuff wasn’t making me happy – it was just creating clutter and anxiety. Now I’m much more intentional about where I spend my money and my time.”

Michelle’s approach embodies the core principles of experientialism – prioritizing experiences over possessions, and finding fulfillment through growth, connection and exploration rather than status symbols.

“Experientialism is really about reclaiming your power as a consumer,” says Wallman. “It’s about being more mindful and intentional about how you spend your money and your time. Instead of chasing the constant novelty of new stuff, you invest in experiences that are truly nourishing and enrich your life in a deeper way.”

For a city like Hong Kong, where material wealth and status have long been the dominant cultural and economic drivers, the rise of experientialism could have profound implications. If younger generations continue to embrace this philosophy in greater numbers, it could lead to a fundamental shift in how the city views success, happiness and the good life.

“Experientialism is not just about individual lifestyle choices – it’s a different model for society as a whole,” says Lau. “If we move away from an economy and a culture dominated by mindless consumerism and the accumulation of stuff, we could actually start to build a more sustainable, equitable and fulfilling future for Hong Kong.”

Indeed, the environmental benefits of a shift to experientialism could be significant. The fashion, electronics and furniture industries – all major drivers of Hong Kong’s economy – are notorious for their outsized environmental impact, from resource extraction to waste generation. By curbing the endless cycle of overconsumption, experientialism could help reduce the city’s carbon footprint and environmental degradation.

“When you invest in experiences over possessions, you’re naturally consuming and discarding less,” says Wallman. “And many experience-based businesses, from restaurants to adventure tourism operators, tend to be more sustainable and locally-rooted than global retail chains.”

Of course, completely dismantling Hong Kong’s deep-seated materialism will be no easy feat. The property and luxury goods industries wield immense economic and political clout, and will likely resist any shifts that threaten their bottom line. However, Lau is optimistic that with the right policies and cultural shift, experientialism could become a powerful force for positive change in the city.