Applied Behavior Science for Health and Happiness
Why We Keep Things We Don’t Need: The Psychological Weight of “Stuff”
Why We Keep Things We Don’t Need: The Psychological Weight of “Stuff”

Why We Keep Things We Don’t Need: The Psychological Weight of “Stuff”

Why We Keep Things We Don't NeedI have a hard time watching the tv show Hoarders.

It makes me feel physically uncomfortable, almost itchy. When I watch even parts of an episode, I feel compelled to root through my own belongings and find something, anything, just one thing, to throw or give away. (My cats count themselves lucky I don’t have the same reaction to Animal Hoarders.)

C'mon, Don, not cool.
C’mon, Don, not cool.

Yet I do fall prey to hanging on to items that have outgrown their utility. Sometimes it’s sentimental. Sometimes it’s difficulty admitting that an item will never be useful (I’m looking at you, small-size and youthful-fit clothing). People who organize homes for a living generally recommend keeping items that are either useful or beautiful, and some of them make exceptions for the sentimental, but almost none of them excuse my stuffed drawer of 32 cotton t-shirts that I only wear to bed.

Why is it so hard to let go of possessions? Psychology suggests a few reasons:

We become emotionally attached to stuff.

Possessions are tied to important moments in our personal histories–dates with now-spouses, happy memories with friends, times when we struggled and succeeded. Letting go of the possessions that remind us of those times can feel like losing a memory as well as an item.

T-shirt from "The Game," Harvard vs. Yale, my freshman year of college. Hilarious but no longer even comfortable for bed, so it lives on in a photo.
T-shirt from “The Game,” Harvard vs. Yale, my freshman year of college. Hilarious but no longer even comfortable for bed, so it lives on in a photo.

An alternate way to think about letting go of items with sentimental meaning is whether they can have a meaningful new use for someone else. Can a new person wear or use that item and enjoy it in a way you no longer do? Then your item can be part of a new memory for someone.

I’ve also started taking photos of items that have purely sentimental but not practical value, like old concert t-shirts, before putting them in the donation bin. That way I keep the memory but free up room in my drawers.

We take “always be prepared” a little too far.

It’s also easy to get caught up in an “I might need this someday” mentality. What if you need to look something up in an old textbook or decide on a Halloween costume that requires those opera-length velvet gloves?

An alternate way to think about having the items you need is to explore other ways of achieving the goal. Can you get the information in the old textbook in some other way, like by borrowing a similar book from the library or looking the information up online? Can you score similar gloves inexpensively at a thrift shop on the off-chance you one day dress up as Jessica Rabbit for Halloween?

That double-sided, two drawer piece of furniture was a file cabinet that I had jam-packed with articles. I've gotten it down to one single drawer thanks to my digitization project.
That double-sided, two drawer piece of furniture was a file cabinet that I had jam-packed with articles. I’ve gotten it down to one single drawer thanks to my digitization project.

I finished grad school at a time when most articles still weren’t available online, and instead had to be photocopied out of the original journals. Add to that my avowed preference for hard copies over digital and you can imagine the hundreds of pounds of paper I was toting around. I finally broke down and decided to download PDFs of as many of my papers as I could. Anything I could save digitally, I recycled the hard copy. I had some anxiety about not being able to physically review my papers, but in the years since I downsized my file cabinets, I’ve honestly had only very rare needs to do so. And, unlike my hard copies, my digital ones are accessible no matter where I am working that day.

We’re saving for a special occasion.

Some things we save because they are too good for now. We’re waiting for a time when we deserve them, or when we’re celebrating something big.

Better to drink wine from a coffee mug than let the wine go sour waiting for a crystal glass.
Better to drink wine from a coffee mug than let the wine go sour waiting for a crystal glass.

When my maternal grandmother, who always saved the good stuff for later, died, we found so many items in her house that had been lovingly packaged for just the right moment. There were bathing suits that never touched the surf, blouses that were never worn to restaurants, makeup that no longer had the bright color or creamy texture it was supposed to have. Many of the items had fallen out of style by then, so even if the right occasion had happened, they would no longer have been desirable to wear.

An alternative way to think about special occasions is to seize the moment instead of waiting for the moment to seize you. If you own something you treasure so much that you think it deserves a special occasion, think instead in terms of the pleasure you will get from wearing it on an ordinary day.

It’s a little morbid to think about, but none of us know how long we have on earth. There is no object so precious we should deny ourselves while we can still enjoy it. Eat off the good plates. Wear the fancy jewelery. Better you grace a regular moment with an extraordinary item than it ends up unused in a storage closet after you’re gone.

We may be compulsive hoarders.

This isn’t the case for most people, but as a psychologist I feel obligated to mention that some people actually have a psychological compulsion to hoard items. Hoarding is related to anxiety and depression and can be a way for people feeling those symptoms to cope. If a person has clinically significant hoarding behavior, professional help may be needed.

You may have crossed the line from collecting into hoarding if you feel embarrassed about the amount of stuff you have, or if you notice it’s hard to keep your home clean as a result of the clutter. If you feel actual distress at the thought of getting rid of possessions, especially items other people don’t understand are important, it may be worth talking to a therapist to see if there’s something you can do to reduce your anxiety.

A roundup of home organizing tips if this topic makes you itchy: