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Overstuffed: Clutter, consumption and the study that shows how possessions shape us

Published: Monday, Oct. 8 2012 4:59 p.m. MDT

James A. Roberts calls the problem an “orgy of consumption.” He is a professor of marketing at Baylor University and author of the book “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy” — and says he would be happy to put a moral value on the level of consumption in America.

“It’s bad,” he says. “Studies are pretty clear that material possessions to a point bring us some feeling of security and provide some meaning to our lives. But when the pursuit of possessions becomes our primary driving value — if you become materialistic — that becomes counter to your well-being. The more materialistic a person is, the less satisfied they are with their lives.”

Graesch, who worked on the UCLA study, took a photo of a large shelf unit in one girl’s bedroom from “Family 1” in the study. The 32 shelves held 247 dolls — many of which were duplicates (including three large and identical dolls of “Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl” from “Toy Story 2”). The dolls are densely displayed and orderly showcased as a collection.

“This is a great photograph to meditate on,” he says, “and to think of what we regard as clutter.”

The implications of so much clutter says a lot about people. Consumer research identifies something called the “extended self.”

“What we mean by that, is our possessions become an extension of who we are,” Roberts says. “What we wear. What we drive. Where we vacation. Everything becomes an extension of our self. We are telling the world this is who we are.”

“Family 27” still lives in their 943-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home.

“We lived in the living room and kitchen and that continues to this day,” Repath-Martos says. “I’m happy with that. We live quite comfortably.”

At the time of the study in 2004, the home was filled with toys, Barbies, Tonka trucks. Bins of toys were brought out to the living room, played with, then dragged back to the kids’ bedroom.

“We have a very rich and very full lives and my house reflects that,” Repath-Martos says. “It is a small house and it is full.”

Worshipping objects

Graesch says objects don’t just reflect how people live, they shape it. For example, the study showed 56 percent of homes had three or more television sets.

“TVs are so intricately woven into our lives it is hard to imagine a home without one,” Graesch says. “If you walked into a home and didn’t see a TV, you would think it was odd.”

The television is just an object, but it exerts strong control over how people live.

“When there is a TV in a living room or family room, our furnishings are orientated toward the TV,” Graesch says. “This, in turn, influences how we organize our bodies in the space. And, if you take it a step further, this one object influences how we converse and interact with other family members with whom we are sharing that space. For all its influence in the design and organization of space, the TV has come to assume the symbolic significance of the hearth as it was used over thousands of years of human history.”

This is an example of how objects influence everyday interactions. “But we don’t really think about it,” Graesch says. “They are just part of our daily routine.”

The study found much of that daily routine centered in one room of the house: the kitchen.

Command central

“Kitchens are a really intensely used hub,” Graesch says. “They are command central. They are the New York Penn Station of life.”

In the past, kitchens were designed to be used as backstages to the real living of life. They were separate from the rest of the home and usually very small. The way people use kitchens today, however, is very different — even though the kitchen may have been designed for 1950s living.

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