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Why do we have so much junk?
The Psychology Behind the “Stuff” We Love
By Shaila Bringhurst
I was travelling to a meeting with a group of friends in Texas—five girls scrunched in a small car—when Keilana jabbed her finger at the window and yelled, “It’s on!” It turned out to be the Krispy Kreme Donut hot light. We pulled a “fast and furious” move to get into the parking lot, and as we later feasted on sticky donuts, Keilana fitted hats to our heads and took a picture. What surprised me was that as we left, she collected the hats from us saying she wanted to keep them as mementos. She had, it seemed, a strange collection of memorable food containers and bags in her apartment.
While most of us probably don’t have a collection of Krispy Kreme Donut hats, there is no doubt objects have special meaning to us humans. Just note how our number of storage facilities exceeds that of coffee shops by a large margin in the US. Why are objects meaningful to us, and why can it be so difficult to get rid of them? There are plenty of reasons, but let me identify four off the bat.
Other objects don’t necessarily identify us, but they remind us of life experiences. Wedding rings are the most common “memory” object that comes to mind. Other notable things people collect include theater programs, restaurant menus, brochures, spoons, thimbles, or, in Keilana’s case, Krispy Kreme Donut hats.
Some things are special because they belonged to someone we cared about. My brother currently owns Great Grandma’s threadbare couch. I can honestly say the couch has made the rounds through the family and should probably be thrown away, but no one has the heart to get rid of it. Furniture, jewelry, even old key chains can feel significant simply because they belonged to someone we loved.
In my closet a few year ago, half the boxes were filled with clothes I hoped to fit into someday. Another stack held all my textbooks and notes I was sure I'd need, and the remaining boxes were full of piano books given me by a neighbor. The fact that I never practiced the piano anymore didn’t stop me from keeping the books anyway. Objects like those in my closet mattered because they represented a future I’d imagined for myself. Throwing the boxes away felt like admitting failure.
In addition to these four reasons, let’s not forget the sway emotions can have on our attachment to “stuff.” The emotion “nostalgia” is defined as a “sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” When you feel nostalgic, the reward system of your brain triggers the release of dopamine,1 a powerful hormone that makes you feel happy.2 To give you some context, consider that most drugs are addictive because they trigger high levels of dopamine. Touching treasured objects can simulate “happiness” and make throwing away stuff very difficult. Objects are still objects, though, and there comes a time for all of us when we must throw or give them away.
When it Comes Time to Dejunk
Neurologists have said too much “stuff” is emotionally unhealthy in the end.3 All the focus is on what has been and not on what currently is. When you decide to go through your boxes (or perhaps clean out your parents’ storage units), here are some suggestions that can make the process a little easier.
Bring a friend (not a family member!) to help you. Your friend won’t be emotionally attached to the objects like you are, and he/she can help you see things with a fresh perspective. You will also likely find yourself sharing stories as you sort through boxes; this is healthy because in sharing with a friend, you are able to bring closure to your memories and make parting a little easier to bear.
Believe it or not, I took pictures of all my “skinny” clothes before donating them. Silly, I know, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of them otherwise. Those clothes were part of my identity, so in taking a picture of them, I felt I was preserving a stage of my life. After that, I was finally able to let go.
Sugary foods trigger the release of—you guessed it—dopamine!4 So, if you are eating food you love while sorting through boxes, you will associate the idea of “moving on” with happy emotions.
The struggle with throwing away stuff is that you associate the objects with your identity, lost loved ones, and past memories. In order to successfully throw or donate the objects, you must first disassociate yourself from them. Many life coaches will tell you there is something to be said for naming things.5 In naming an object, you remove yourself from it. While sorting through boxes, if you find yourself struggling with throwing something away, try naming it. Point and say, “This is a couch” or “You are a broken earring; you are not my mother.” Also try giving names to your emotions. It has been proven that giving a name to a negative emotion will lessen its strength. Naming an emotion will also help you cry or confront the feelings. If you find yourself feeling unhappy, try identifying the emotion more specifically. Are you feeling overwhelmed, nostalgic, worthless, judged, lonely, etc.? It may sound simple, but you’d be surprised the difference naming things can make.
Be Kind to Yourself
Tell yourself it’s okay to let go of the past (even past goals) in favor of something new. Decide to focus on having new experiences with loved ones rather than clinging to memories. Also, don’t think of yourself as a failure simply because you are older, more mature, and wanting a different future than you used to envision. It’s not a failure; it’s a renewal. You are the one who set the ideal for yourself in the first place. It is perfectly acceptable for you to change your mind!
1. Julia Layton, "How Nostalgia Works," http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/nostalgia4.htm
2. Allie Johnson, "Feeling Nostalgic? Why we form emotional ties to our stuff," https://www.sparefoot.com/self-storage/blog/19577-feeling-nostalgic-why-we-form-emotional-ties-to-our-stuff/
3. Jay MacDonald, "The Psychology of Stuff: The Things we Cling to and Why," https://www.sparefoot.com/self-storage/blog/19556-the-psychology-of-stuff/
4. Kitta MacPherson, "Sugar can be addictive, Princeton scientist says," https://www.princeton.edu/news/2008/12/10/sugar-can-be-addictive-princeton-scientist-says
7. Michael Schreiner, "Pain and the Power of Naming," https://evolutioncounseling.com/pain-and-the-power-of-naming/
Fig. 1. Amelia Tabullo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ilvmoz/
Fig. 2. Debbie, https://www.flickr.com/photos/47932340@N06/4521927782/sizes/l