Why We WANT Stuff AND Why We Can’t Get Rid of It

There are two psychological factors at play in owning a bunch of stuff and I think both lower the overall quality of life: identity investment and loss aversion.

Identity investment is what Fight Club ribs at when it makes fun of the need to own a bunch of nice stuff, particularly in American(Western?) culture. Americans are incredibly materialistic, often without even realizing it. A friend of mine recently told me when he was a young professional he spent endless amounts of time crafting his apartment to be the perfect place to bring people — buying the right furniture to represent his identity, decorating and re-decorating. The irony is that he put all of his time and efforts into making his apartment perfect to bring people to instead of actually, you know, going out and meeting people to bring to his apartment. He described this as a depressing and miserable period of his life.

This sort of identity investment in possessions is pushed onto us by advertising and it works well. People become attached to the companies that make their car or truck, their computers, their clothing, their appliances, etc. They spent months saving up for an item, spent a lot of mental energy choosing which item “represents” them best, therefore they begin identifying themselves as a “Ford guy,” or a “Mac user,” or whatever.

This becomes part of your identity, no matter how small, that you portray to others in your life. And if you’ve learned anything from this blog, it should be that investing your identity in factors outside of yourself (sexual interactions, what people think of you, how much money you make, stuff you own) isn’t healthy and lowers your self-esteem.

loss aversion and clutter

The second factor, loss aversion, is a sad fact of life. Psychology has shown that humans perceive the pain of losing something to be much greater than the pleasure of having it. This is true for everything — relationships, possessions, competition — and it’s hard-wired into us. All of us. So that useless box of stuff I had, swore I had to keep, and felt crushed when I had to get rid of it, is actually something I haven’t thought about or missed once since discarding it.

Loss aversion motivates us to expend more time and energy maintaining what we already have than the actual pleasure we derive from having it merits. To think of it in numerical terms, something may give us 5 points of pleasure, but loss aversion will cause us to perceive 15 points of pain if we lose it. So instead of investing 5 points worth of effort to maintain it, we invest 15 points of effort into something that gives us 5 points of pleasure.

Such is the curse of loss aversion. And such is the benefit of being attached to as few things as possible.

Happiness studies consistently bring back a couple of findings: 1) that we derive far more happiness from experiences than we do from possessions, and 2) that we’re better off investing our energy in our relationships than the things we own.

Getting rid of unnecessary possessions can therefore indirectly improve our quality of life through the following ways:

  1. Frees up more time and money to spend on experiences and with people.
  2. Forces one to invest more of their identity in their behavior and attitude and less in objects around them.
  3. Removes the stress of loss aversion and trying to hold on to what one already has.
  4. Saves money (always a stress reducer).

You are not what you own. Your possessions do not make you a better person.


Now comes the fun part. Let’s talk about the useless crap you have that you can get rid of today. I’m going to start with the easiest objects to trash and move to the most difficult.

  1. 90% of what’s in your storage closet, attic or garage. This is the easy part, the spring-cleaning part. Those old golf clubs you never play with, the rusty toolbox, the beaten up board games, the bicycle pump for the bike you don’t have anymore, the old pool toys, the posters from college, on and on and on. This is the stuff you would have thrown out ages ago except you told yourself, “Well, you never know,” or you stopped because they brought back a really good memory or two. Look, if you haven’t used it in the past three months and don’t think it’s likely you’ll use it in the next three months, toss it. Don’t think about it. Don’t reminisce. Just toss it. You won’t miss it. I promise.
  2. CD’s. It’s 2012. Get with the times and put all of your music on your computer. A few years ago I sold my collection of 400+ CD’s for $500.
  3. Video games. About half of my readers just gasped when they saw this. Yes, video games can be fun, and they’re nice to blow off some steam every now and then. But most people who play them, particularly young men, play them way too much. Not only are they a massive time sink, but they waste a lot of money and all but kill your social life. Ask yourself, if you spent half the amount of time you spend playing video games out socializing the past five years or reading books, or working out what, would your life be like? Chances are your stomach dropped as soon as you thought about that. If it did, then it’s time to put the Xbox and PS3 on Craigslist. Delete Diablo 3 off your hard drive. Get living.
  4. Television. Yeah, there are some good TV shows, but you can watch them on your computer for free whenever you’d like. Forget the television. Having it around only encourages you to get sucked into pointless crap. Like sports? Go watch your favorite games at a sports bar. Watching sports with other people is ten times better, even if they’re total strangers.
  5. Books. I’m a bookworm and love the good ole glue and paper as much as anybody. Buy a Kindle or iPad and start downloading your books. Much better for when you travel too.
  6. Clothes. Clothes. For guys, all you need is 3-4 dress shirts, 3-4 T-Shirts, two pairs of jeans, a nice pair of pants, some shorts, exercise shoes, dress shoes, a coat, a jacket, a sweater, maybe a sweatshirt, socks, and underwear. For women, I know this sounds crazy, but you don’t really need a whole lot more than most guys. Instead of dress shirts, maybe just 3-4 dresses (if you’re into that). And the great thing about dressing for women is that accessories can really change the whole look of an outfit. So, with a few scarves or pieces of jewelry or hats or whatever, you can mix and match the same few pieces and still look like you have an endless closet.
  7. Furniture. Now we’re getting serious: that nice chair you never sit in, the dining room set you touch once a year, the extra table in the office, the bookshelf that held the books you just sold. When you toss your unneeded furniture, you’re likely to find that you can easily live in a house/apartment half the size of your current one. That may be a traumatic realization for some of you, but if you can handle it, then you can use the money you make now to live in a smaller place in a far better location. Remember, experiences bring happiness, not stuff. So what’s going to make you happier, the futon grandma gave you for a graduation present, or living down the street from your favorite concert venue?
  8. Car. And if you live in a better location, and live in a city with good public transportation, chances are you don’t need a car anymore. I haven’t owned a car in 9 years and I think it’s very unlikely I’ll ever own one again. My friends think I’m crazy, but they’ve never lived in a city with quality mass transit. If you don’t own much stuff, you can live in the best location in the city and then use buses or metros to get where you need to go. Not only is it far cheaper, far more convenient, and far more enjoyable, but it leaves a much smaller carbon footprint.

RelatedHow To Get Your House Decluttered This Weekend

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“Change The Code. Change Your Life.”

Further Reading: Get Mark Manson’s newest book! It’s the self-help book for people who hate self-help!

the subtle art of not giving a fuck


The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is all about self-improvement not through avoiding problems or always being happy, but rather through engaging and improving upon problems and learning to accept the occasional unhappiness. It’s a radical departure from anything else you’ve ever read, and that’s what makes it so powerful.

7 thoughts on “The Reasons We WANT Stuff AND Why We Can’t Get Rid of It

  1. An interesting post with useful tips. It is surprising how you feel when you get rid of all the clutter. Much clearer and it is so much easier to clean too. Thanks for posting.

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