We all know being featured on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” is probably a bad sign. The show raises a good question, though: In today’s materialistic, rat-race world, do we have too much stuff? And how does all that clutter really affect our happiness?

De-Clutter to De-Stress — Why It Matters

So Much StuffPhoto by Jess Ivy

Since the 1970s, the average American home has gotten 50 percent larger. And that extra space isn’t staying empty — Americans are gradually accumulating more and more stuff. But it’s not just about finding new items to decorate our digs. Starting in the early 20th century, some researchers say, advertisers began marketing their products as ways to increase happiness. The result is that people often end up with way more stuff than they want or need and can have difficulty parting with it.

An extreme example of over-consumption is hoarding, a psychiatric condition related to obsessive compulsive disorder, in which people compulsively accumulate items and are unable to get rid of them. Hoarding can have negative effects even for those who don’t suffer from it themselvesCompulsive hoarding: a qualitative investigation of partner and carer perspectives. Wilbram M, Kellett S, Beail N. Assertive Outreach Team, Kendray Hospital, Barnsley PCT, South Yorkshire, UK. B J Clin Psychol. 2008 Mar; 47(Pt 1): 59-73.. In one study, people who lived with hoarders before age 21 reported greater anxiety, distress, strained relationships between family members, and overall difficulty in family lifeFamily burden of compulsive hoarding: results of an Internet survey. Tolin DF, Frost RO, Steketee G, et al. Behav Res Ther. 2008 March; 46(3): 334-344..

Even for the general population, accumulating stuff can actually be addictive. Scientists use the term “hedonic treadmill” to describe how humans eventually adjust to good and bad eventsBeyond the hedonic treadmill: revising the adaption theory of well-being. Diener E, Lucas RE, Scollon CN. Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 61820, USA. Am Psychol. 2006 May-Jun; 61(4):305-14.. When applied to consumerism, this means that no matter how many iPhones are released, they become less and less exciting over time. This is where the treadmill part comes in — when the everyday reality of owning doesn’t live up to the excitement of purchasing, we perpetuate the cycle by buying more.

So what’s the best way to break the cycle — without living like a hermit?

Throw-out Throwdown — The Answer/Debate

Fortunately, people don’t adapt to experiences the same way they do to stuff. Going on a hike or spending a day at a museum is different every time, so the thrill doesn’t wear off as easily. Experiential purchases are largely hedonic-treadmill-resistant because we can re-experience them by remembering, sharing with others, or looking at photos. Plus, studies show many “doing” activities are also group events, so they reinforce social bonds and relationships.

Ever had a case of buyer’s regret? Most of us have wished to return an ill-considered purchase, but the impulse is not nearly as strong with money spent on activities. A study shows that people dwell on unchosen options and make comparisons more often after a material purchase than with an experiential buyThe relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Carter TJ, Gilovich T. Department of Psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010 Jan; 98(1): 146-59..

On the other hand, never buying anything or getting rid of every item in the house isn’t necessarily a good sign. The opposite of hoarding, a psychological issue in which people can’t stand accumulating objects and purge their homes constantly, is much less common. “Clutter phobia” can run the spectrum from run-of-the-mill neat-freakiness to full-on OCD.

Here are a few guidelines for happiness-friendly spending and storing:

  • Consider carefully before buying something new. Is this a need or a want? Try to limit the quantity of stuff you own by getting rid of one old object for every new one.
  • Organize thoroughly and often. If (like most of us) you have an overflowing closet but nothing to wear, go through everything at least once a year. If an item has gone 12 months without a single wear, it’s time to let go of that mohair sweater.
  • Avoid stockpiling. It may be tempting to get a different set of cookie-cutters for every holiday, but most objects can multi-task. Justifying a purchase with phrases like “I might need this…” or “This would come in handy…” probably means it’s superfluous.
  • Clean with your brain, not your heart. Sentimental keepsakes — that high school letter jacket, the mug stolen from a college cafeteria — are emotionally valuable, but usually just collect dust. For important but falling-apart mementos, take photos to preserve the memories.
  • Steer clear of aspirational purchases. Buying a new wardrobe in a smaller size might spur a fitness kick, but it will definitely clog up a closet. Want to be a painter? Start with a few supplies before springing for a deluxe set. We often abandon new hobbies and goals but keep the associated stuff because we like to entertain the possibility of revisiting them.

The Takeaway

Having too much stuff is a formula for added stress, but is there a way that money can contribute to happiness? Studies show spending those hard-earned paychecks on social or creative experiences — going for a night out on the town, taking an art class, or treating friends to a picnic — can lead to longer-lasting happiness and stronger relationships. So next time you’re tempted by those fancy yoga pants, think of putting the cash towards a yoga class with a friend instead.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Jessica Magidson and Sherry Pagoto.

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