I’ll give you a hint: it’s not because vast nations of hoarders have finally decided to get their acts together and clean out the hall closet.
It’s also not because we’re short on space. In 1950 the average size of a home in the US was 983 square feet. Compare that to 2011, when American houses ballooned to an average size of 2,480 square feet – almost triple the size.
And finally, it’s not because of our growing families. This will no doubt come as a great relief to our helpful commenters who each week kindly suggest that for maximum environmental impact we simply stop procreating altogether: family sizes in the western world are steadily shrinking, from an average of 3.37 people in 1950 to just 2.6 today.
So, if our houses have tripled in size while the number of people living in them has shrunk, what, exactly, are we doing with all of this extra space? And why the billions of dollars tossed to an industry that was virtually nonexistent a generation or two ago?
Well, friends, it’s because of our stuff. What kind of stuff? Who cares! Whatever fits! Furniture, clothing, children’s toys (for those not fans of deprivation, that is), games, kitchen gadgets and darling tchotchkes that don’t do anything but take up space and look pretty for a season or two before being replaced by other, newer things – equally pretty and equally useless.
The simple truth is this: you can read all the books and buy all the cute cubbies and baskets and chalkboard labels, even master the life-changing magic of cleaning up – but if you have more stuff than you do space to easily store it, your life will be spent a slave to your possessions.
We shop because we’re bored, anxious, depressed or angry, and we make the mistake of buying material goods and thinking they are treats which will fill the hole, soothe the wound, make us feel better. The problem is, they’re not treats, they’re responsibilities and what we own very quickly begins to own us.
The second you open your wallet to buy something, it costs you – and in more ways than you might think. Yes, of course there’s the price tag and the corresponding amount of time it took you to earn that amount of money, but possessions also cost you space in your home and time spent cleaning and maintaining them. And as the token environmentalist in the room, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that when you buy something, you’re also taking on the task of disposing of it (responsibly or not) when you’re done with it. Our addiction to consumption is a vicious one, and it’s stressing us out.
I know this because I’ve experienced it, having lived in everything from a four-bedroom house to my current one-bedroom flat I share with my daughter – but I’m also bringing some cold, hard science to the table.
A study published by UCLA showed that women’s stress hormones peaked during the times they were dealing with their possessions and material goods. Anyone who parks on the street because they can’t fit their car into the garage, or has stared down a crammed closet, can relate.
Our addiction to consuming is a vicious one, and it’s having a markedly negative impact on virtually every aspect of our lives.
Our current solution to having too much stuff is as short-sighted as it is ineffective: when we run out of space, we simply buy a bigger house. This solution will never work, and the reason it will never work is that possessions seem to hold strange scientific properties – they expand to fill the space you provide for them.
This is why some normal adult human beings can live in houses just 426 square feet (like my lovely mother, in her floating home in Victoria, Canada) and others find that not even their 2,500-square-foot McMansion feels big enough. It’s almost never the amount of space that’s the problem, but the amount of stuff.
So if bigger homes aren’t the solution, what is? I suggest heading in the exact opposite direction: deliberately choose a life with less. Buy less and instantly you have less to store; you use less space. Eventually you can work less to pay for all of this stuff. Soon you will stress less too and, above all, your life will involve less waste.
Are you wondering where to begin? Don’t. You know exactly where this journey starts. It starts with the stuff that makes you feel guilty, stressed or overwhelmed when you look at it. The clothing with price tags still on them, the toys no one plays with, the boxes and boxes of stuff you’re storing in your attic, basement and garage, just in case. Get rid of it; recycle it, donate it, sell it on Craigslist. And when you’re done getting rid of it, stop buying more.
Because when it comes to stuff, I promise you, you don’t need more labels or better systems or complicated Pinterest tutorials – all you need is less.