Why are humans so obsessed with possessions?
I was recently gifted something from a friend of mine – a small toy he used to play with as a child, to avoid fidgeting. He knows I have trouble keeping myself from picking, fidgeting and biting at my nails. It looks like this (although mine is objectively much better and prettier):
It was such a small thing to do, and a small toy. But it meant so much to my friend, that he had kept it all these years. And it meant so much to me, that it has been in my pocket ever since.
But I started wondering, while fidgeting with this little gadget – why do we humans like to keep things so much? Maybe it was a silly question, but I felt like I had to find the answer. Because we all do it:
We collect. We upgrade. We hold onto heirlooms. We are always looking for a cool new gadget, or something our neighbour doesn’t have yet – and some of us hoard.
Why are we so obsessed with out possessions? I needed to know the psychology behind it. What drove our possessiveness? Why are we so held by the smallest, most trivial objects? So I did a bit of research, and I found the answer:
We love them.
In our eyes, our possessions represent our extended selves. In other words, our possessions tell a story of who we are, where we have been and what we value. We are emotionally attached to these objects because they are essentially a part of who we are. And an object doesn’t have to have a material value to be valued emotionally – take my earlier example.
This is why sometimes, when we’re cleaning out our closet, or trying to de-clutter before a move, we can find it difficult to part with some of our ‘stuff’. We’re emotionally attached:
That hat we haven’t worn in 5 years may have a memory of a fun day while we were on vacation attached to it. Or the pot you still have from a long-dead pot plant might have been bought and planted with someone you cared about.
That old teddy bear you’ve had since you were a kid. That school senior shirt that you wouldn’t be seen dead in brings back memories of your final year of high-school… the list is endless, and we are all attached to something.
Where does this possessiveness come from?
This attachment to objects is built early on, from childhood all the way through to adolescence. Childhood possessiveness stems from envy, according to some psychologists (such as Jean Piaget) – who even found that babies did not want to share their toys – flying into a rage when they were taken off of them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, older children also expressed outrage at sharing their beloved toy, especially a favourite, such as a ‘teddy’ or ‘blankie’.
Interestingly, these children refused to take a ‘copy’ or ‘double’ of their toy home, rather than their original. Their most common reaction was horror at the thought of a replacement to their original possession.
As we mature into adolescence, this is where possessions increasingly become an ‘extended part of self’. As adulthood approaches, our possessions give us identity and start to embody memories and emotions within us.
But what about minimalists?
So I completely understood the concept of emotionally attaching to certain things. The psychology of that made sense. But then I remembered those minimalists.
Those people whose houses were practically empty – the ones who had one knife, one spoon, one fork type of deal. How did they overcome this seemingly embedded emotional attachment?
According to many minimalists, the idea of minimalism is to find freedom – from worry, fear, guilt, depression and the trapped lifestyle of consumer culture. Which actually doesn’t sound that bad.
There are plenty of reasons for wanting to be free of attachments and memories that may restrain you, depress you or make you feel guilty or unhappy.
But the problem can sometimes end up being – ‘I want an uncluttered, empty house – but how do I feel when I sit in that empty house?’
We have memories and emotional attachments for a reason – that’s all part of our identity.
Is it unhealthy to deny ourselves our full identity? Where we can have an extended part of ourselves through the things that we own, and sometimes give, or pass down to our children or friends? Are people scared to have things, in case someone takes them away?
Balance, Balance, Balance.
There are people who hoard. People who live as minimalists. People who are environmentally conscious. People who enjoy collecting certain things – stamps, magnets, dolls – you name it, someone collects it.
There are people who probably could use a de-clutter of their house. But at the end of the day, people will do what they feel comfortable doing. Perhaps balance is key – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with being a little unbalanced at times.
We are all our own people, and our possessions (or lack of possessions) paint a picture of who we are, what our fears are, what brings us joy, what our values are, and what and we we love.
If you enjoyed this article, feel free to check out more at: http://www.theartofoverthinking.com/