Why are we pack rats?

Oprah made it trendy. As we discussed in an earlier blog post, Oprah joined the battle against clutter in the March issue of her magazine with the announcement that she was cleaning out her closet and keeping “only that which delights me or enhances my well-being.”

It took Woman’s Day just a month to join the bandwagon. In its April 2011 issue, the magazine offers a 12-week “decluttering plan.” It also answers  some important questions. Why are we pack rats? How can we get rid of some of our emotional attachments to things? Will we be happier when we toss out the clutter?

Why are we pack rats? Human beings have been wired by evolution to acquire belongings, Dr. Tim Kasser, chair of the psychology department at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, told Women’s Day.  Our ancestors didn’t run as fast as other animals, and they didn’t see or hear as well either. Collecting food and other supplies helped them survive. Today we often collect more than we need, just as we often eat more than we need.

How can we get rid of some of our emotional attachments to things? Dr. Randy Frost, co-author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, says most of us develop emotional attachments to things and we have five main reasons for keeping them.

  • You inherited it. The china plate belonged to your great-aunt, but you’ll never use it.  Would your aunt really want you to keep it? If it’s valuable, could you sell it and donate the money to a charity in your great-aunt’s name?
  • You can’t replace it. Keep a few very special examples of your children’s artwork, or take digital photos to help you remember.
  • You keep it to remind you of a special time or event. Your prom dress is just a dress. It’s the memory that’s important, not the dress itself.
  • You might need it. If you use the word “might,” think again. You probably mean that you’ll never read the book or magazine you’ve been saving for months. And, if you did need it, could you find it online or borrow it from the library?
  • You think it’s beautiful. You can’t keep all the beautiful things in the world in your house. Share the beauty with someone else or with Goodwill.

Will we be happier when we toss out the clutter? Maybe. Studies show that people who orient their lives around material possessions are less happy. People in one study said that making a major purchase, such as a TV, made them happier, but only for 12 weeks.

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