- A way of having things that bring happiness.
- A form of Expression that gives us a means to surround ourselves with the things we find beautiful, meaningful, or artistic.
- A form of Service to others such as donating medical supplies, computers, toys, etc.
- A means of expressing Love through things like Birthday gifts, jewelry, or things that show we care.
- A way of commemorating memories through things like family heirlooms.
- A tie to other times or seasons of life.
- A way of Discovering who we are or what we’re capable of through things like rock climbing shoes, a guitar, a paint set, or a book about far away lands.
- An expression of who we are, what we value, and a nice treat at the end of a long week.
“Suppose you woke up one morning to discover that you were the last person on earth. […] In the situation described, you could satisfy many material desires that you can’t satisfy in our actual world. You could have the car of your dreams. You could even have a showroom full of expensive cars. You could have the house of your dreams – or live in a palace. You could wear very expensive clothes. You could acquire not just a big diamond ring but the Hope Diamond itself. The interesting question is this: without people around, would you still want these things?” ― William B. Irvine, On Desire: Why We Want What We Want
Money and stuff are one and the same. A common life story is going to work to get money to buy stuff, and then hopefully that stuff makes us happy. Stuff is the bridge between money and happiness. Stuff is the vehicle we use to buy whatever it is we are ultimately after: happiness, significance, love, security, etc.
This mini education talk shares how we form connections to “stuff” and begin to consider objects “our own.” We even go as far to believe that our own objects have a unique or special essence. 4 min.
“Stuff” originally acted as a way of acquiring tools necessary for the future. For example, hoarding furs and warm blankets in the summer kept us alive through the winter. Our evolutionary attachment to stuff goes much deeper than consumerism though. Three basic motives have been identified as reasons for our evolutionary affinity for stuff:
- Security – Having stuff provided our ancestors a greater opportunity to overcome injury, starvation, cold, and dangerous situations. Having an abundance of the right resources at the right time allowed for protection, comfort, and trading of necessary goods.
- Status – Higher status has been linked to greater evolutionary odds of reproduction. In pre-industrial societies, large amounts of resources, or “stuff,” led to a higher perceived status. The pursuit of “stuff” partly arose out of a desire to maintain or increase this status, and increase one’s chances of reproduction.
- Belonging – Bonding over common purchases or stuff means being part of the “in group.” A modern example is belonging to the group of Iphone (Apple) users thought of as trendy or hip. This sense of belonging ensures a greater chance of group cooperation and support in hard times, and thus survival.
Have we taken our acquisition of stuff too far? We’ve now become incredibly evolved at collecting things. Now, many of us have enough “stuff” to fill entire rooms, closets, or even storage units. How about getting rid of stuff though?
We now only get rid of things at major junctures in our lives such as divorces, major moves, marriage (moving in with another), and other means of starting over. Getting rid of things has become synonymous with reassessing our priorities.
Stuff is essential at different ages. For example, giving a young child a teddy bear or doll allows them to practice their social skills. Toddlers will even assign personality characteristics to their little friends in order to learn and enforce their social gleanings.
Other stuff is necessary for functioning in certain worlds. For instance, some jobs require suits and ties to be worn on a daily basis. Stuff helps preserve our identity and status as we become an adult. As we approach the end of our lives, stuff becomes our link to past memories. Stuff eventually moves from memories into continuing our legacy. One example of stuff acting as a legacy is a family heirloom.
“Nothing can be so perfect while we possess it as it will seem when remembered.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
How Stuff Defines Us
One of the Four Cornerstones of a Meaningful Life is Discovery. Our purchases help reveal us to our inner selves. The purchase of a brand new motorcycle, a nose ring, a book, or a pair of hiking shoes affirms our identity and helps us connect with undiscovered sides of ourselves. These purchases enable us to further identify with these things or realize that these sides of ourselves are less integral than previously realized.
Stuff helps create our identity. “Do the clothes make the man or does the man make the clothes?” Wear any clothes long enough, and eventually we’ll feel the part. Advertisers tap into our sense of identity to compel us to buy their products. This identity offers a sense of belonging into a certain group which is of one of our strongest social compulsions.
Wearing Nike puts us in a group of people who value their health. Owning a BMW gives us the identity of someone who values luxury and comfort. Wearing a Rolex carries with it an identity of success. Studying the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) in 2010 showed, ‘Areas of the brain that are known to be involved in thinking about the self also appear to be involved when we create associations between external things and ourselves through ownership,’ says Kim. Essentially, the part of our brain that processes our identity is also activated when we associate things as “mine.”
Ask a person to “describe their room,” and what they say offers A LOT about them. Our rooms are filled with posters of people we admire, trinkets tied to memories past, groups we belong to, and ways of being we aspire to. Each of these items comes with a further “why;” we chose that item over other items. The “why” delves further into our goals, values, identity, beliefs, hopes, and dreams.
Stuff also acts as memories or markers of significant moments in life. Souvenir shops, momentos from vacations, wedding dresses, or even our child’s old baby clothes become tangible reminders of times we cherish. With these ties to memories past, it’s no wonder that many of us struggle to let go of certain things. The fluffy stuffed animal missing an eye, to us is not a worthless piece of junk. “Fluffy” is a reminder of our child’s toddler years and all of the adventures they had together. Everytime that we clean out our closet, we are choosing the pieces of our past that we most want to be defined by.
- What are five of the most essential pieces of “stuff” you’ve ever owned (things that have helped define you)?
A Basic Evolution of Stuff Over a Lifetime:
- As an infant our baby clothes are assigned to us in order to help determine our identity; blue for boys and pink for girls.
- As a toddler we are given things such as dolls or dump trucks to mimic motherhood or spark further passions. The intention of these things is to further define our interests and help create some boundaries as to what we “should” be into.
- As a child, we are given things that will hopefully start educating or shaping us. Examples of these things are books or puzzles.
- As an older child and teenager our things are used as an investment in helping us further define our passions and prepare for adulthood. Examples of these types of gifts are laptops, sports equipment, dance equipment, musical instruments, etc. Here, our clothes and way of dressing start to become a means of identification into specific a group (popular, nerdy, gamer, athlete, jock, musician, artist, etc.)
- As we become a young adult, our stuff starts to identify and form our place in society. Examples may be our car, our TV, or the way we decorate our home.
- As an adult, acquiring and getting bigger and “more” stuff is how we ensure security, identity, and status.
- As we start to see our youth vanish, we start using stuff to buy the fleeting feeling of youth. An example of this attempt is the typical midlife crisis, where a man buys a sports car.
- As we see life slipping away, stuff is gradually given away, and we only hold onto the most essential pieces. At this age, photo albums, and stuff tied to our dearest memories holds the highest significance.
“One of the great arts in living is to learn the art of accurately appraising values. Everything that we think, that we earn, that we have given to us, that in any way touches our consciousness, has its own value. These values are apt to change with the mood, with time, or because of circumstances. We cannot safely tie to any material value. The values of all material possessions change continually, sometimes over night. Nothing of this nature has any permanent set value. The real values are those that stay by you, give you happiness and enrich you. They are the human values.” —George Matthew Adams
- At each stage of life, what was one item/thing/stuff that you most remember? All might not apply yet.
- Infant ___________
- Toddler ____________
- Child ___________
- Teenager ___________
- Young Adult ___________
- Adult ___________
- Middle-Aged Adult ___________
- Elderly ___________
The Good of Stuff
Stuff can easily provide short term happiness: Type 1 and Type 2 Happiness. These types of happiness are tied to short-lived pleasures and a sense of being lost in the moment, or flow. How? Things like new cars, snowboards, new clothes, or a new hula hoop are all ways of getting short-term happiness from stuff. You might be saying, why would anyone want short-term happiness when they could have longer term happiness? There’s nothing “wrong” with short-term happiness, and a life without short-term pleasures (toys, new gadgets, conveniences that make our lives easier, novelties, etc.) wouldn’t be desired by anyone.
There are also Type 3 and Type 4 Happiness, which are more associated with longer-term happiness and life satisfaction, or joy. “Stuff” can lead to longer-term happiness through things like books, musical instruments, gifts that express our Love, or anything else that enhances our perspective or allows us to tap into the 4 Cornerstones of Meaning (Service, Love, Discovery, and Expression).
Stuff also speaks to us on a deeper level, a level so deep that we can’t even conjure a logical explanation. These purchases are an Expression of our sense of beauty, value, wonder, or awe. For instance, spending $75 million on a painting of a rectangle makes no logical sense. But for someone, their deepest sense of art and beauty has been brought to life via this purchase. Before we jump to judgment or talk of how frivolous spending millions on a painting is, let’s talk about our own bucket lists.
(This painting is a $75 million rectangle, or “Rothko”)
Many of us haven’t even created a bucket list because we’ve yet to believe that our deepest desires will come true. These lists are things we long for on a deeper level and even believe will make our life somewhat complete. While experiences commonly crowd this bucket list, very few have no “stuff” on their bucket list (a boat, our dream house, buying a house for a parent, a certain car, etc.)
We express our values through our stuff, and invest in what we value. Every purchase in life is an investment: an investment in our sense of security, our sense of love, our need for belonging, our temporary happiness, our need for spontaneity, etc.
Stuff is also used as a form of Service when given from a place of contributing to the needs of others. An example would be buying a coat for a homeless person. In this instance the motive is as important as the “stuff.” Our purchases can also be used as a demonstration of Love. The book, The Five Love Languages shares that there are five main ways that we all give and receive love: two of them being acts of service and gift giving. Stuff can be used to show a deeper sense of care, remembrance, noticing, sacrifice, and compassion. When stuff is bought with intentionality and given from a spirit of Service or Love, stuff becomes an expression of love.
One of the most common examples of stuff being created as an act of service, gift giving, and an expression of love is the Taj Mahal.
Quick Quiz: Using Stuff for “Good”
Join us in this 3 minute activity as we figure out how to pursue your version of the “Dream.”
- What is one thing, or piece of stuff, that contributes to you feeling each of the 4 Types of Happiness?
- Short-Term Happiness___________
- Flow/Engagement ___________
- Perspective ___________
- Meaning and Purpose ___________
- What is one thing, or piece of stuff, through which you tap into each of the 4 Cornerstones of Meaning?
- Service ___________
- Love ___________
- Discovery ___________
- Expression ___________
The Problem with Stuff
We originally collected stuff to meet an evolutionary need. But now, we can see this evolutionary predisposition bearing us down with clutter: when asked about the positive aspects of materialism, Kasser, known for his research spent studying “stuff” and materialism said, “materialism is associated with lower levels of well-being, less prosocial interpersonal behavior, more ecologically destructive behavior, and worse academic outcomes. It also is associated with more spending problems and debt.”
The most supported reason why materialism negatively impacts our well-being is because,“materialistic values are associated with living one’s life in ways that do a relatively poor job of satisfying psychological needs to feel free, competent, and connected to other people.”
This clip goes into the damaging impact that our production of stuff is having on both our world and us as people. 99% of the “stuff” consumed in the U.S. is thrown away within 6 months. 17 min.
The pursuit of stuff is akin to the pursuit of money or short-term happiness. Even if we eventually catch the butterfly that provides us Type 1 or Type 2 Happiness, we have to keep catching short-term happiness in order to remain happy. In this instance, stuff is being used to pursue happiness, which is acting as a hindrance or distraction from meaning or purpose.
Media-marketing has also helped to convince us that we “need” stuff in order to belong. So much so that materialism has become a faux way of identification, in lieu of actually forming our own identities. Our stuff has become a crutch for self-esteem. In 2007, Lan Chaplin and her colleagues “interviewed participants aged between eight and 18 and found that ‘materialism’ (identified by choosing material goods in answer to ‘What makes me happy?’) peaked at middle adolescence, just when self-esteem tended to be lowest. In a follow-up, materialism was reduced in teens who were given flattering feedback from peers to boost their self-esteem.”
Hoarding, the process of living in fear that the future won’t be as good as the past. While all of us hold onto a few things that are no longer necessary, this way of thinking keeps us looking to the past for meaning rather than attempting to find it in the present moment. Two recent studies, resulted in three major findings: “Loneliness and object attachment were positively associated with hoarding; Object attachment mediated the relationship between loneliness and hoarding; And object attachment might be an attempt at compensating for loneliness.”
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.” — Victor Lebow
Having Stuff Wisely
How do we interact with material belongings?
Putting our value in stuff is a recipe for unhappiness. Meaning though can be found when we use stuff as a tool to express our values or produce more of the things that lead to fulfillment (connection, love, service, joy, play, etc.). Let’s remember that even if we spend $75 million on a painting, the painting is still not as important as the person that helped deliver the painting.
Buying New Stuff
When making a new purchase, the reason matters! Long-term happiness (or joy) is the goal! Stuff is only the meaning and value that we assign the object. Buying a Ferrari because we love and are fascinated by cars will likely bring us a level of happiness. Buying a Ferrari to impress others will bring misery.
A quick question we recommend when making a purchase is, “How will I feel about this thing in a year?”
Purchases are an investment.
Ex. Buying a board game can be an investment in spending quality time with our family.
Other examples of purchases that can create longer-term meaning:
- Investing in a piggy bank as a means of saving for a trip on our bucket list.
- Investing in a soccer ball to kick around with our kids and create memories.
- Investing in a pair of ice skates to re-engage with a passion from our youth.
- Investing in a set of cookware to spend more nights cooking dinner with our significant other
- Investing in a new dog toy because we love our dog.
- Investing in an ice cream maker to make homemade ice cream once a week with our friends.
- Investing in an art set to let some of our inner creativity out.
What do we keep?
As we get older, stuff begins to pile up. Eventually, it’s time to clean out our closets. Each thing we own, we can ask ourselves ‘how we feel about on a scale of 1 to 10.’ Oh, and for this exercise, we’re not allowed to choose 7 as an answer. 7 is the cop out number we use to avoid choosing whether we truly like something or not. There’s a big difference between an 8 (something that moves us) and a 6 (which has more of a “mehhhh” feel to the number). We recommend only keeping the objects that rate as an 8 or above.
“It is very awkward how some people don’t have any investment, wouldn’t buy self-development books, complain that organic foods are too expensive for them to afford, but yet they have all the costly brand name clothes, shoes, bags, and other expensive accessories.” ― Edmond Mbiaka
What needs are your purchases fulfilling? This list of essential human needs is from our extensive section on Compassionate Communication.
to know and be known
to see and be seen
to understand and
celebration of life
- What are the last 5 major purchases you made? What was each thing an investment in?
- What are the last 5 medium purchases you made? What (need) was each thing an investment in?
- What are the last 5 minor-yet-not trivial purchases you made? What (need) was each thing an investment in?
Practice & Resources
In his book The Burning House: What Would You Take?, Foster Huntington asked people what items they would grab if their house was on fire. He writes,
“Today, developed countries are consuming more than ever before. This culture of consumption is often fueled by people’s desire to define themselves by the possessions they amass. The Burning House: What Would You Take? takes a different approach to personal definition. By removing easily replaceable objects and instead focusing on things unique to them, people are able to capture their personalities in a photograph.”
We included one of the submissions below, in detail:
Occupation: Bike shop owner
The picture you gave me and the leather box we found together. Mom and dad’s old camera and mom and dad’s old leather bag. The shoes I can’t live without. Your smell #1 and your smell #2. The notebook where I draw while you laugh. My iPod to listen to beautiful tunes while thinking in our next home.
And a few other brief submissions that stood out:
Quick Activity: Burning House
Join us in this 6-minute activity as we figure out how to pursue your version of the “Dream.”
- If your house was on fire and you could only run in and grab five things, what would they be? Why?
- What do these items say about you?
- Of these items, which ones do you tie most to your identity?
Let’s Make a Bucket List
Sit down and take ten minutes to reflect upon a list of things that you’d like to do or have before you die. The “stuff” on this list is telling as to the things that we hold closest to our definition of a meaningful life.
Quick Activity: Bucket List
Join us in this 5-minute activity as we figure out what your bucket list looks like.
- What are 10 things that you’d either like to have or do before you die?