I have a lot of links on this theme, so I thought I’d break it down and start with a post about clutter in general (I’ll follow up with a post about decluttering).
There was a great article in Time magazine (March 23rd, 2015 issue), called The Joy of Less (you can access it online here with a subscription and can read related articles here). Since I know not everyone has a subscription, however, I’ll give you some highlights. Did you know that Americans today have more possessions than any society in history? Three-quarters of garages surveyed in one study were so full that homeowners couldn’t park their cars inside. (This certainly seems to hold true in my neighborhood, where even though every house has at least a two-car garage AND a two-car driveway, people still lack space and have to park their cars in the street, to the point where it’s a one-lane in some stretches of road.) U.S. children make up just 3.1% of the global kid population, but American families buy 40% of the world’s toys! “Most household moves outside the U.S. weigh from 2.500 lb. to 7,500 lb. (1,110 kg to 3,400 kg). The average weight of a move in the U.S. is 8,000 lb. (3,600 kg) […]. It would be one thing if all our possessions were making us happier, but the opposite seems to be occurring.” Some studies have shown that too much stuff can actually lead to higher levels of anxiety, and I think we all experience the same feeling of relief after decluttering some part of the house. Other studies have shown that high levels of anxiety can lead to over-acquiring, so it’s often a vicious circle.
There has also been a huge rise in the self-storage industry (there are 48,500 storage facilities nationwide, as opposed to 10,000 in the rest of the world combined!), but we are now also witnessing a rise in the junk-removal industry as well as “the shift of possessions from tangible to digital” (I admit that even though the Engineer and I still buy physical copies of books and movies we like and of some music, most people our age only have physical evidence of things they liked at least 10 years ago). That Time article argues that the rise in consumption occurred after the Industrial Revolution: before then, one’s only options were what was sold at the local general store, but after that, one could order a myriad of things through catalogs and, now, online – not to mention the rise of warehouse stores and big-box stores and department stores – plus, the notion of planned obsolescence was introduced, and the cost of goods declined. “A new consumerism was emerging, one that offered a uniquely American idea that you could aspire to a different social class through acquiring.” (While the price of discretionary expenses has declined, conversely, the price of necessities like food, housing, and health care has gone up.)
A final quote that explains in part why we are stuck with all this clutter: “There are many economic and cultural factors that lead us to buy, but there are fundamental evolutionary drivers for why we acquire but then can’t let go. Call it our Inner Squirrel.[…] It doesn’t help that our Inner Squirrel is also sentimental.” I’ll get back to this in a bit.
Another article notes that an estimated two-thirds of the American GDP comes from retail shopping! Moreover, the home organization industry has more than doubled in size since the early 2000s. See 21 more statistics here.
Personally, I think that the rise of minimalism is the pendulum swinging away from consumerism, and I tend to be happier somewhere in the middle (though I still aspire to have a bit less than I do at the moment). Millennials are said to spend less than previous generations and keep less stuff. Heck, the Mall of America will be closed on Thanksgiving! (Granted, it’s still open on Black Friday, but this is a very big step and a sign that consumerism might be declining.)
There are different reasons for hanging on to things: we are emotionally attached to them, we think we might need them someday, we like the feeling of abundance conveyed by owning a lot (the Inner Squirrel), they have monetary value (or, conversely, it was a good deal), etc. Some people differentiate between hoarding habits of the sexes, but after reading Steve Almond’s essay In Defense of Male Clutter, I can identify with his reasons for keeping certain items that have sentimental value. So I don’t think it’s a sex or gender thing, just a personality thing – some of us form emotional attachment to our things (for example), and some people don’t. On that note, here are7 steps to dealing with emotional clutter.
There is a correlation between clutter and depression. It seems that women are more prone than men to feeling anxiety when they have more objects in the house – perhaps this flies in the face of what I said in the last paragraph! Conversely, decluttering has been tied to weight loss – Peter Walsh wrote a book about it, and you can read one example here and an article here.
Of course, some people have “clutter” because they have collections of things, especially since collecting is about more than just stuff. There’s a large emotional component to collecting, and I think that often, what differentiates a collection from clutter is the way that it’s presented. If your stuff is sitting in boxes or at the back of a closet or piled on the dining room table, it’s clutter, but if it’s in a display case, then it’s a collection.
This brings up the case of actual hoarders. (I had an almost unhealthy addiction to the TV show Hoarders, and I know I’m not the only one!) Last spring, I read in a magazine about a new book written by a woman whose mother is a hoarder, and she explores how her up-bringing now influences her life as a wife and parent. It’s called White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daugtherhood, and the Mess In Between, by Judy Batalion. Incidentally, the magazine article I had read mentioned that she was originally from Montreal, and after a ridiculously short game of Jewish geography, I had ascertained that she is the older sister of one of the Engineer’s friends from school. I haven’t read her book, but it does look interesting.
I’m going to write a follow-up post about decluttering; in the meantime, if you want to donate old items but don’t know where to start, here’s a helpful list for San Antonio residents. For example, it hadn’t occurred to me, but you can donate children’s clothing to foster care organizations so that it goes directly to children in need, as they often arrive in a foster home without any personal belongings. If you want a super-easy solution, there are organizations like the Salvation Army that accept a wide range of items and can arrange for a free pickup (but I do urge you to do your due diligence, because some of these organizations are not actually charities and are in fact small businesses that make a profit on the items that you give them).