Hoarding and Materialism

I have just finished reading a fascinating book on compulsive hoarding called Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. It was written by psychologist Randy O Frost, and social worker Gail Steketee who have invested a lot of time studying and working with people who have difficulties with complusive hoarding. The book is in the form of case studies of real life hoarders, and provides a deep insight into the nature of this phenomena, which is still not well understood. If you want a thoughtful perspective on the psychology of problem hoarding I think this would be one of the best books available.

Following the case studies the final chapter of the book entitled “Having, Being, and Hoarding” broadens out the discussion to place compulsive hoarding in a social context. Here is an extract:

Objects carry the burden of responsibilities that include acquisition, use, care, storage, and disposal. The magnitude of these responsibilities for each of us has exploded with the expanding number of items in our homes during the past fifty years. Having all these possessions has caused a shift in our behaviour away from human interaction to interaction with in animate objects..Possessions originally sold on the promise that they would make life easier and increase leisure time have done just the opposite.

This is partly a function of the commercialization of our culture. Never has there been so much stuff for people to own and so many ways of peddling it to consumers.

Although the authors regard compulsive hoarding as a mental illness, this final chapter lays some responsibility at the feet of a society dominated by marketing strategies aimed at creating a desire to acquire. We are all susceptible to the influence of advertising, but for people who are already vulnerable, the constant messages to buy the newest and the best can be completely overwhelming.

The authors acknowledge the influence of the PBS show Affluenza and the rise of the simplicity movement as an attempt to highlight and address the negative impact of excessive consumption. They point out the irony that many hoarders are motivated by a desire to avoid waste. However this sympathy with environmental concerns is taken to an extreme that leads to an accumulation of worthless objects within the home.

Minimalism and hoarding appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum of how we relate to our belongings. However I find it helpful to understand both perspectives. We are all doing our best to make sense of how to handle the huge volume of stuff now available to us.

Reading this book helps me understand that not everyone finds a minimum of belongings and lot of open space relaxing. For some of us, being surrounded by objects is a source of comfort and joy. Whats matters is that the presence or absence of stuff is not dominating our lives, so that we can focus on what is really important.

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