Look Beyond the Joy of the Transaction

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Tompkins Weekly March 8, 2010
By Wendy Skinner

Despite a lull in the economy and the persistence of poverty, most American families can still afford to buy and own increasing volumes of “stuff.” As items move through the levels of commerce, they finally descend to a point of such extreme devaluation, they are astonishingly inexpensive or free.

This abundance of cheap or free goods can turn a household into a warehouse, in need of systems and strategies for organizing everything. We find ourselves managing a cycle of intake and outgo, periodically clearing out less desirable possessions, which we donate to thrift stores, array in our yards for others to purchase, or give away to anyone who will just get them out of our sight.

Eventually, the worst of our orphaned junk—including low-value donated items—gets buried in a landfill. A commonly advised strategy for de-cluttering is to throw things away, by the dumpster-load, if necessary.

Ubiquitous temptations to acquire have led to what one writer has called an “orgy of consumption.”AP reporter Joseph Verrenga observed a direct connection between obesity and the ownership of excess goods. Some homes are as overweight with possessions as its occupants are overweight in body.

To accommodate those who can’t let go of surplus stuff, our consumption society has spawned a growth industry in private storage. When possessions outgrow the size of people’s homes, they rent room-sized lockers for the overflow. You can even have a portable storage unit parked at your house for you to fill at your leisure.

The instinct to hoard is closely associated with primal survival instincts such saving food for the winter or amassing items of value that can be used in trade. Hoarding as a disorder afflicts about three percent of the population. It is defined as an urge to collect and keep items to an extent that essential living space is displaced. Hoarding results in threats to personal safety and health. Hoarders may also suffer emotional distress caused by worry about the disposition of their possessions, seen simultaneously as valuable and burdensome.

Our consumer culture generates hoarding, if not as a disorder, at least as a bother and a time-waster. According to one survey, Americans spend an average of two weeks a year looking for things they know they own but can’t find.

The obvious, easier-said-than-done antidote to becoming a clutterbug or a borderline hoarder is to break the cycle at its start. Resist those misplaced primal urges to hunt and gather; use up what you already have; reduce your possessions to items of good quality, beauty, and functionality.

Adopting better consumer hygiene doesn’t imply placing a limit on spending or counteracting our consumer economy. Economist Paul Samuelson identified “the joy of the transaction” as a intrinsic human pursuit, gratified by making a deal. To avoid the negative consequences of overconsumption, we can learn to look beyond the deal to the next joys we crave: simplicity, calm, time, and fulfillment.

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