April 26, 2013 6:16 pm

Do we have too many things?

The human desire for self-expression and autonomy conflicts with the continuing allure of materialism
An illustration that depicts decluttering©Laura Carlin

The Sage

If you search Google Books’ Ngram Viewer you can see the history of “decluttering” in a graph. Analysing a huge corpus of English-language texts, the graph suggests that the verb first appears above the x-axis in 1965, starts to climb the y-axis in the 1980s, and shoots up to new heights in the 1990s and 2000s.

Decluttering may be a neologism but social scientists have been foreseeing the end of the age of stuff for decades. In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow famously proposed that once people had material security they would seek love and belonging, esteem and, finally, self-actualisation. In the 1970s political scientist Ronald Inglehart was predicting the rise of a post-materialist society where people would most value autonomy and self-expression.

Perhaps both might have been surprised at how enduring the allure of shiny stuff has been. In part, that’s because things remain powerful shortcuts to many of the non-material goods we seek. From the rapper’s bling to the art collector’s Picasso, expensive objects can still buy status and respect. Unless and until the culture changes, stuff will still count.

Still, most would agree that stuff matters less than most of the other good things in life. And so it would seem to be good if people valued objects less and experiences more, as increasingly appears to be the case. This trend has gathered pace as the digital economy has made ownership of objects such as DVDs, records and books redundant. A whole generation is growing up consuming a lot which it does not think of as stuff at all.

But they are still consuming, more than ever. And although experiences may not be things, they are being bought and sold, acquired as memories and treated as commodities. If the transition we are seeing is from ownership to consumption, it may not take us very far in the direction of post-materialism after all. Focusing less on things is of most benefit when it leaves us with more time to become absorbed in the people and activities that matter most to us, not when it diverts our restless acquisitiveness from objects to experiences.

. . .

The Shrink

Not many of us would be able to emulate Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. The legend tells us that on hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions in a shipwreck, he simply said: “Fortune bids me to be a less encumbered philosopher.” In our modern world we generally crave “stuff”, accumulate it and take it as a symbol that we’ve somehow made it.

Yet at the same time we feel oppressed. The more possessions you have and the more attached you are to them, the more stressed you are likely to be about losing them. Somewhere deep within our materialistic outlook there lurks an admiration for Zeno’s way of life, a yearning for travelling through life a little lighter.

So arrived the rise of decluttering, at one point a staple of TV programmes. Emptying cupboards and wardrobes and taking bagfuls of stuff to the charity shop can certainly have therapeutic value. Apart from the practical benefit of creating space, it can give us a great sense of lightness and renewal. It can be the first step in moving on from a phase of our life, particularly liberating if that phase was not a good one.

But there are also pleasures to be had in resisting too much shedding. Keeping things can have its own therapeutic value. Certain objects hold memories, for example. And we don’t want to be too intolerant of the messiness of reality, deluding ourselves that by sanitising our closets we can also eliminate all that is wrong with our lives.

It’s not just a matter of how many things we have but how we relate to them. The comeback of thrift and the emergence of “upcycling” isn’t so much about having less than valuing what we have more. Make do and mend can provide another peculiar satisfaction, that of working with our hands and seeing the results of our endeavours.

We may not want to go to Zeno’s extremes. But it may still be good for us to let some of the ballast go. Just watch that you don’t declutter only in order to reclutter.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@ft.com

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