People have collected and stored objects as signs of who they are for millennia. But in the 21st century, is this enduring drive to hold on to our possessions good for our health, asks Trish Lorenz
A couple of years ago, I felt that my life needed an injection of excitement, so I rented out my apartment and decided to spend two years travelling and living abroad. My belongings had to go into storage and, because storage is expensive in London, where I live, I decided only to store those objects that I really needed or loved.
But as I began packing, I found that it was difficult to part with almost anything: everything I owned felt either useful or symbolic, intrinsically linked to my life or necessary. Some items, such as the painting of a Spanish beach that, with its evocation of summer sunshine, had sustained me through endless British winters, almost hurt to pack away. Others, even the kitchen gadgets that I rarely used, felt too valuable to discard. In the end, I ordered a bigger unit and stored it all away.
Our lives are bound up with objects, and not just practical or useful things. Collecting is a fundamental human trait: even in ancient civilisations, people were buried with objects that symbolised that person and testified to their life. Take a look around your house. You’re bound to find that many of the things you own have an emotional value and reflect your identity: the sculpture you brought back from a trip to Africa, your collection of Norwegian crime novels, your first football trophy – they all give clues about your personality and preferences.
Dr Gail Steketee is Dean and Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. She has spent the best part of two decades studying our relationship with our belongings, and says the things we own tell the stories of our lives. “We define ourselves by what we have. A lot of our identity is tied up in the objects we own,” she says. “Useful objects tend to be stored away in the kitchen and the wardrobe, but we display things because they represent who we are.”
Museums are evidence of the human preoccupation with the things that surround us, and our homes act as mini-museums, telling the story of our lives. Sam Gosling is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Snoopology, a book that looks at what the objects in our homes say about us. Gosling says the objects we own are far more telling than we often think.
In 2012, researchers at UCLA published the results of a 10-year investigation into modern life, finding that 75 per cent of families couldn’t park their cars in their garages because they were crammed full of belongings
When researching the book, he looked at the contents of more than 100 bedrooms and says it was possible to under-stand the occupants’ psychological footprints and to glimpse their different personalities by what they owned and how they displayed their belongings.
“I think it’s possible to read many clues about people’s personalities in their homes. Our belongings are statements about our goals and values and what we believe in. They affect our emotions and our feelings and can tell people a lot about us,” he says.
Gosling points to photos of family and friends by way of example. Displaying many pictures can signify sociability: the places where the pictures are displayed, in public or private, for example, also tell us something about the openness of the person. Along with reinforcing our identity, another prime function of the objects we own is in evoking memory: your father’s watch, your children’s paintings and a picture of your siblings as children all have the power to transport you to another time.
After I left London, I spent two months on a Greek island, writing and swimming. When I left Greece, I found I needed another bag to store the new objects I’d acquired: the painting of the village where I had stayed, the books bequeathed to me by the local poet who swam on the same beach as I did each day, and the honey infused with thyme that so redolently reminded me of the wild herbs that grew on the mountains behind my little village house.
Dr Andrea Tosato is a Dubai-based psychologist who specialises in helping prepare families who are planning to adopt a child. He says that storing, displaying and treasuring objects because of the memories associated with them is an important part of building a secure life.
“One of the first tools I encourage parents to use to make life easier for the adopted baby is to create a treasure chest or a life box,” he says. “Parents collect important objects, such as the first tooth, a favourite toy, the blanket that the baby was wrapped in, anything belonging to the life of the child. Giving meaning to objects is a way to help a child feel secure. It’s the same reason that we collect and treasure objects as adults. It helps us feel in control.”
Counter-intuitively, we sometimes also keep objects to allow us to forget. In their 2010 research paper On Human Remains: Values and Practice in the Home Archiving of Cherished Objects, David S Kirk and Abigail Sellen interviewed a series of people, including one man who kept a T-shirt of his father’s that he slept with as a child after his father had died, and a cog from his first motorbike, on which he’d had a serious accident. Both were stored away in a box in the loft and enabled him to safely forget painful memories and only access them, in a safe way, from time to time.
Sometimes our love of objects can become problematic and result in compulsive hoarding, an anxiety disorder that causes people to acquire, then refuse to part with large numbers of objects. In extreme cases, this can result in homes that become unliveable because of the volume of objects within them. But the problem is far more widespread than the occasional extreme case suggests.
In 2012, researchers at UCLA published the results of a 10-year investigation into modern life in a report entitled Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century. The report found that objects were taking over modern life: 75 per cent of the families involved in the study couldn’t park their cars in their garages because they were crammed full of belongings. The study also found that material objects take up mental as well as physical space. Managing the volume of possessions was such a crushing problem in many of the homes in the UCLA study that it actually elevated levels of stress hormones among family members.
Steketee’s research into compulsive hoarding has led her to believe that the problem is far more wide-spread than we suspect. “Our best guess is that four per cent, or one in 25 people, have real difficulty in parting with objects, and have an emotional investment in items the rest of us might consider useless”.
I would once have scoffed at the idea of holding on to useless objects, but when I returned to London after two years of travelling and my boxes arrived from the storage unit, I was shocked to see what I’d kept. Much of what I’d once thought too valuable to throw away could be considered garbage: plastic storage containers without lids, a pot without a handle, a toothbrush holder with a crack in the middle. Many of the objects I’d paid to store for two years I now deemed so insignificant that I ended up getting rid of more than half.
It was a salient lesson. Although I’d picked up a few new things while travelling – a colourful vase or trinkets for friends – I had for the most part been living lightly, carrying my backpack, making temporary homes in shared spaces and feeling as comfortable as I ever had when surrounded by all my possessions. I still love the painting of the Spanish beach, and it will probably be something I always own, but while objects have their place in telling my story and building a sense of home, they are now just one part of the picture of who I am.