We're Drowning in Stuff, and This Study Proves It's Making Us Miserable

Here's my garage full of stuff. What does yours look like?. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The internet has been abuzz with an illustration of dots that shows everyone crowded into the kitchen. As I pointed out recently, the drawing is used regularly to demonstrate that a) everyone wants to live in the kitchen and b) that our houses are too big and full of wasted space. Almost no one apparently reads the book the illustration is from — "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century" — which, in fact, delivers a different message.

The most shocking message is that the average American family is overwhelmed with stuff. The authors actually went into the homes of real families and documented this, describing their subjects as people who "work hard and shop hard." The researchers spent several thousand hours photographing and cataloguing everything in the 32 houses they studied, as well as interviewing the owners of all this stuff.

The words of the parents themselves speak volumes about the effects of clutter and high densities of objects in their homes. Many find their accumulated possessions exhausting to contemplate, organize, and clean. The visual busyness of hoards of objects can affect basic enjoyment of the home.

They also catalogued the magnets on fridges and found an interesting correlation: "One of the more intriguing phenomena we have noted is a tendency for high counts of objects on refrigerator panels to co-occur with large numbers of objects per square foot in the house as a whole." Meaning a messy fridge door equals a messy house.

The houses they study are mostly child-oriented, and much of the stuff filling the house is there to entertain the children.

Our data suggest that each new child in a household leads to a 30 percent increase in a family’s inventory of possessions during the preschool years alone. Masses of toys and kids' gear inevitably spread throughout the house, and some parents allow — and even feature — Disney-inspired art and collectibles reflecting children's themes in traditionally adult spaces such as living rooms.

However having been published in 2012, the study may be a little out of date.

When you look at the photos, the computers are big gray boxes, the monitors are CRT, the shelves are stacked with thousands of DVDs. But more importantly, kids may have less stuff because they're now more likely to be entertained by their phones. One household had hundreds and hundreds of Barbie dolls, but Barbie sales have been declining for years. Part of the reason is certainly technology and a change in culture. As one consultant noted, "Kids are wedded to their smartphones, wedded to social media."

Home offices — those bastions of paper and "miscellaneous objects that fit poorly elsewhere" — are probably less crowded too, with online invoicing and banking. Ten years ago, trying to go paper-free was almost impossible; now it's relatively easy. People are also buying less; as Peter Grant noted in the Wall Street Journal, "urban-living millennials have tended to accumulate less stuff than their parents up until now. When you live in urban settings, you live small."

But then there are the garages:

Cars have been banished from 75 percent of garages to make way for rejected furniture and cascading bins and boxes of mostly forgotten household goods. Our analysis suggests that close to 90 percent of garage square footage in middle-class L.A. neighborhoods may now be used for storage rather than automobiles.

Your stuff is bringing you down

The late George Carlin once defined a house as "just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff." The study seems to confirm this.

Ultimately, the main message from the "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century" study is that none of these families are happy about being buried in stuff. It oppresses them. "This is the mess I see when I walk into my house. Probably five, six times a day, I am cleaning up..."

Psychologists working on the study measured cortisol levels and found that living in a messy or cluttered home caused higher rates of depressed moods and that "conspicuous consumption and constant clutter (as defined and experienced by the residents themselves) may be affecting some mothers' long-term well-being."

If that wasn't a good reason to stop buying stuff, I don't know what is.