“Display shelf, girl’s bedroom, Family 1: Beanie Babies, 165; Human/Animal Figurines, 36; Barbie dolls, 22; other dolls, 20; Porcelain dolls, 3; Troll, 1; Castle miniature, 1.”
These people were not hoarders. They were overwhelmed. The mothers, particularly, were stressed.
“Mothers were very aware of the mess and clutter and a laugh-it-off attitude that this was going to just keep reoccurring,” says Jeanne E. Arnold, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, “and a few were almost bitter. You could hear the sarcasm” when they described their surroundings to the ethnographers recording their home life every 10 minutes.
“They would say, ‘I clean up this table, and it just gets piled up again,’ ” Arnold says, “and the father would say, ‘Now, we really like this headboard.’ ”
Psychologists with the team collected saliva samples that showed elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the mothers who commented on the disorganization.
“And learning that clutter was not just an annoyance, but that it had long-term implications for well being and health,” Arnold says, “was a very sobering discovery.”
In this way, the very items that signify success, ease and comfort — say, a freezer jam-packed with pizzas and potpies and drumsticks — turn ugly on you. Your house goes off the grid, and, all around you, your creature comforts morph into tiny cortisol pumps. The more you have, the more stress they make.
Graesch sighs. He remembers when he lost power in Connecticut once for a week. He notes that we construct our hyper-busy lives ourselves, accumulate possessions quicker than we develop ways to think about them and discard them.
“I think about societal collapse a little bit,” he says. “I’m an anthropologist. All societies collapse. There has never been one that hasn’t. It doesn’t just mean zombie apocalypse. Undulating climates, dissolving food supply, conflict, disease — these are the four, or in some combination.
“What happens to us in the wealthiest country in the world, where we live these very privileged lives and have more possessions than ever before? How are we going to be self-sustaining?”
Deep breaths, people. And remember to saw away from you.