Americans drowning in stuff
A new book by 3 anthropologists looks at all the things taking up space in Americans' homes. For some family members, all that stuff just creates stress.
One of the reasons people cite most often for moving is a desire for more storage space – not more living space, but more storage space.
Because, boy, do we have a lot of stuff.
Three researchers at UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives spent four years studying 32 middle-class Los Angeles families and determined that "stuff" is a key ingredient in modern life – and sometimes adds to life's stress.
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Their new book, "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors," includes photos of all the paraphernalia that makes up modern family life, including refrigerators covered with magnets and memorabilia.
As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker, in an article focusing on America's spoiled children:
"After a few short years," the text notes, many families amass more objects "than their houses can hold." The result is garages given over to old furniture and unused sports equipment, home offices given over to boxes of stuff that haven’t yet been stuck in the garage, and, in one particularly jam-packed house, a shower stall given over to storing dirty laundry.
The reasons for amassing all that clutter vary, from parents' desire to compensate for time away from their children to the pressure of consumer culture to the fact that people like to collect things.
"The American workplace is intense and demanding; when we come home, we want material rewards, like people all around the globe," anthropologist Elinor Ochs, one of the book's co-authors, told UCLA Magazine.
"What distinguishes us is the normative expectation of hyperconsumerism," she said. "American middle-class houses, especially in Los Angeles, are capacious; refrigerators are larger than elsewhere on the planet. Even so, we find food, toys and other purchases exceeding the confines of the home and overflowing into garages, piled up to the rafters with stockpiled extra 'stuff.'"
Adding another child to the family produces a 30% increase in the amount of stuff before the child reaches kindergarten, the authors report.
"Many of the kids’ rooms pictured are so crowded with clothes and toys, so many of which have been tossed on the floor, that there is no path to the bed," The New York Times writes, mentioning one child's room that contained 248 dolls.
The authors also counted objects on refrigerators, which averaged 55 and hit a maximum of 166 at one home, though they did not draw any conclusions from the refrigerator clutter. Perhaps the ability to banish all that clutter accounts for the popularity of stainless steel, which does not accommodate magnets.
Does all this stuff make its owners happy? It depends.
Fathers and older children generally were proud of their things, the authors reported. But mothers reported substantial stress.
"It's difficult to find time to sort, organize and manage these possessions," Anthony P. Graesch, another co-author, told UCLA Magazine. "Thus, our excess becomes a visible sign of unaccomplished work that constantly challenges our deeply ingrained notions of tidy homes and elicits substantial stress."
Confess. How much stuff do you have in your home? Does it make you happy or does it stress you out?
We have A LOT of stuff... And our sons 33 and 36 do NOT want our stuff in today's world. We and our parents appreciated the memories of our grandparents, parents things and pictures. Our son's have no interest in any of our stuff... I actually think it is sad.... we will be getting rid of it soon
Here's an admission of my clutter sins:
My family grew up poor, so we rarely threw away anything. We were never overwhelmed with clothes or toys because we could only afford to buy them twice a year. And then we made them hand-me-downs for the next kid. Our house was too small to have extra clutter, so all of our books were borrowed from the library, and if we couldn't keep something indoors, it went to a small shed outside. (Then we never used it again.) But what we bought, we kept. For a LONG time. Until it fell apart.
I have the keeping part down, but I don't have the "use it until it breaks" part down. Which is why I have 3 blenders, each with a different specification (juicing, blending, and chopping), and four containers of clothes I just don't wear (expensive dresses, thin clothes, fat clothes and seasonal clothes). But my real hoarding sin is my books. I have approximately 30 containers filled with 50-100 books each. I keep planning to have my own house, with my own library, and it's taking me a while to get there. I could give 90% of my junk (barring necessary furniture) away tomorrow, EXCEPT for my dream of a library. It doesn't help that all of the books that I've kept, I've read and liked, so I don't want to get rid of them because I'm a voracious re-reader.
I think almost every person I know has a dream like that. "When I have my own house, I will have a (insert special room here)." Whether it's a game room, a huge walk-in closet for shoes, a studio, a quilting room, a fully tricked out garage, or a library, there's one thing that a lot of us look forward to, and collect pieces for. There's that dream of 80's arcade games, giant chess sets, lighted recesses that display designer footwear, $1000 easels, 10,000 shades of paint and mullioned windows for natural light on all sides, welding equipment and gleaming tools, a wall of fabrics and spools of thread arranged by color, and books, thousands of books, lining floor to ceiling shelves.
I know that simplicity is great, and that clutter is stressful. Heck, tomorrow I have to go through my room and throw away 12 old pillows that I just don't know HOW to recycle but I feel wasteful for tossing. But I never want to give up my books, not just because I've spent so much money to buy them over the course of 15 years, but because they're part of my dream, my home, and every time I see them I feel an intense satisfaction.
There's a good side to accumulation. You just have to choose what you want to accumulate the most, and be prepared to give away everything else. I don't think you have to give up your dream room in your dream home. That serves a purpose. Just keep the rest of the clutter under control.
Do you have your most valuable things insured? Take pictures of each room with all the stuff in it & then look at the photos...then you'll realize why you can't find anything, you get easily overwhelmed; you get distracted, stressed, anxious, annoyed. Parents-if your bedroom isn't perfectly neat, you can't ask your kids to clean up their rooms! GoodWill and others are way too full of stuff-call up local churches and shools to see if they can use kids toys, games, clothes, etc. Women's and men's shelters can use all kinds of things-call and find out what they need.
Remember: stuff does not give you kisses and hugs, doesn't say "I love you". I'd rather have a loving man next to me in bed, than all those 6 layers of decorator pillows!
If you have too much stuff, buy this book. It will help.
If it's not very useful, very beautiful, or very valuable. . . you can't afford to house it. And if it's very valuable, but neither useful or very beautiful. . . sell it and bank it.
I lived in a antique teak farmhouse in Thailand in the 70's. Cathedral high roof, 2" X 10" floor boards ran the length of great rooms. NO furniture, only mattresses that folded against the wall in the bedrooms and an exquisitely crafted teak cabinet on one wall and a larger cabinet on the far wall in the living room. People gathered on that grand floor. They ate on the floor in a circle. Warm and intimate, like about a campfire, talking with each other. It was like we were sitting on the floor of a chapel – in which the architecture is not covered by cheap skins of drywall or paint. Think grand old barn with enormous, but all wood, members intricately fitted. If you’ve seen such a place, our skimpy moldings or wood floor tiles look pretty cheap in comparison.
Couldn't our living spaces be as inspiring and peaceful as chapels?
We think sitting on the floor primitive, etc. It is hard to start middle aged or beyond. . . . but when I went back to visit that house when I was 30 and the occupants over 70. . . . they were stronger and more agile than I.
My description of waking my very first morning in that house: “I jumped to a window and pulled the beveled stops grooved smooth from touch. The shutters swung on wood peg hinges out onto a green glisten of forest, translucent like sunrise through stained glass. The greenest fruit trees, untamed, pressed toward the sides of the house; a stream flowed behind, and sky-high bamboo swayed beyond all. That humans could live in such a wildly beautiful place! I looked back at the room that was too refined to be rustic, but too elemental to be elegant, sensing definitions had shifted overnight,”
There were NO decorations in that house, no pictures, nick knacks etc. There were tools and baskets of the most exquisite artistry. , , , Which is a movement now in interior decorating. I read a NY Times article about using ones bicycle as wall decoration in ones apartment. And if you're a guy who fishes, why not hang the mullet net above the sofa (dried first)??? It is a beautiful work of art.
Modern architects are trying to get us to live in spaces like this. Read “The Not So Big House” books by Susanka or “The Very Small Japanese House – ideas for living well in small spaces” “Pacific Modern” by Baarreneche
There were no decorations/pictures in that house, only exquisitely crafted tools. The NY Times wrote about ones bicycle decorating ones apartment. Why don't fishermen hang their mullet net over the sofa (dried first)? A finely crafted, beautiful object!
After 38 years of marriage and never wasting anything...we too are bursting at the seams. I keep most everything of value that I think someone may need or could use. Many times it's a blessing, but many times it's stuff kept and stored for nothing. I am in the process of weeding it out because if anything would happen to the two of us, God help our kids!!!!
Regarding clothing, unless it has EXTREME sentimental value (wedding dress for instance), if you haven't worn it in a year, get rid of it! Don't say "oh but I might wear it". You won't.
About Teresa Mears
Teresa Mears is a veteran journalist who has been interested in houses since her father took her to tax auctions to carry the cash at age 10. A former editor of The Miami Herald's Home & Design section, she lives in South Florida where, in addition to writing about real estate, she publishes Miami on the Cheap to help her neighbors adjust to the loss of 60% of their property value.