Culture of clutter: Healthy Living
Collecting stuff -- for good or ill

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer


It's just so easy to have too much stuff.

Think about it. In centuries past, most people couldn't even read. That meant no books, magazines, junk mail or newspapers piling up on the kitchen counter. Homes didn't need closets because most people could fit every piece of clothing they owned in a small trunk.

There were no machines, so we didn't need CDs, cassettes, videos, DVDs or game cartridges filling cabinets and shelves. If you ate a meal, you grabbed your one plate, utensil and cup and used it, then cleaned it and put it away.

And most of our forefathers collected little besides firewood. Who had time while eking out a living? But all that's different now.

"We live in a more cluttered world," said Dr. Jerrold Pollak, a Portsmouth, N.H., psychologist with an interest in obsessive/compulsive behavior including excessive shopping, collecting and hoarding. "We get more mail, we get more magazines, we have the opportunity to buy more things. One hundred years ago, you couldn't have bought 200 pairs of shoes if you wanted to. Now you can get that many in an afternoon."

Three mind-sets

Of course, some of us are better at keeping a handle on all this "stuff" than others. Pollak identifies three types of people who usually end up with too much stuff:

The collector, someone who goes out and actively seeks new things.

The clutterer, someone who just seems to have a hard time throwing away what comes into the home.

The hoarder, someone who refuses to throw away almost anything, even trash.

While collecting is considered healthy unless it becomes an obsession, and clutter isn't necessarily a problem unless it's extreme, hoarders almost always need psychological help, Pollak said. And of course, people can fall into more than one category.

So why do we keep so much stuff? David Schlenoff, a Baltimore, MD, psychologist with an interest in hobbies and collecting, said he believes the urge is primal.

"People used to be hunters and gatherers, so we were ingrained with that behavior -- it's hardwired into us," Schlenoff said.

And having stuff makes us happy.

"It makes us emotionally comfortable to have things. It makes us feel secure and safe," said Dr. Marsha Sauls, a psychologist who practices in Dunwoody.

Patricia Cahill, an English professor at Emory University who has taught a class on collecting thinks most people collect something, even if they say they don't.

"When I ask students at the beginning of the class if they collect anything, many say they don't," Cahill said. "But by the end of the class, most say they do."

That's because many people don't think owning 400 CDs or a refrigerator magnet from every trip they've ever taken as collecting, but it is.

"I had a student say she kept Smirnoff Vodka ads because she thought they were cool, but she never thought of it as a collection until after she took my class," Cahill said.

Another big difference between collectors and clutterers is that collectors often keep their "stuff" much neater and more organized then clutterers.

"Collectors try to create a little world they can order because the real world is so chaotic," Cahill said.

Glenn Harley Sr. has certainly managed to order his world. Hartley and his wife, Mildred, are both avid collectors. In fact, they collected so many things that the collections overran their Chamblee home years ago.

So the couple built three display and storage buildings in their yard. One houses Glenn's collection of fire memorabilia, while another showcases Mildred's dolls and doll houses. The third is for storage.

"Our kids call it the Hartley compound, like the Kennedy compound," laughs Glenn, who just turned 70.

Glenn Hartley collects fire memorabilia and calls his display area "Smokey's Fire Museum" (after Smokey, his first Dalmatian.) His display area houses hundreds of books, toy fire trucks, badges, helmets, nozzles, stuffed toys and other fire-related items.

Hartley said he loves the thrill of finding new things, as well as learning new information and meeting new friends. Sauls said that is very common.

"For many collectors, the thrill is in the hunt, in finding the coveted item. Once they own it, it's not as important. The acquisition is the high," Sauls said.

A natural cycle

The urge to collect often begins in childhood, with kids defining what is theirs and what belongs to others by preschool, Pollack said.

And children can quickly become refined collectors, just like adults.

"Many children begin collections, like baseball card collections, and then upgrade them, aspiring to better, rarer, items," said Dr. John Lion, a psychiatrist in Baltimore, MD.

Schlenoff said collectors often fit into a cycle, choosing an item to collect, buying more of their collectible as they age and money becomes more available, then slacking off as they get older and have less space and energy. A number of collectors will eventually sell or give away the collections they spent decades acquiring. He said people in their 70s and 80s are especially likely to dispose of large collections.

While some collectors simply sell off or pass their collections on to family members, others may donate them to museums, historical societies or other public institutions.

"A good deal of material is donated to museums," said Lynne Spriggs, curator of folk art at the High Museum of Art. "It's critical to collections."

But while museums might covet a fine collection of paintings or bronzes, it's doubtful they'd want the piles of rubber bands, sheaves of used aluminum foil and bags of twist ties many people, especially the elderly, collect.

Doctors say there are a number of reasons for the hoarding of such common-place items. Dr. Don Hughey, a local psychologist in private practice who teaches at Argosy University, a school in Dunwoody, said many elderly fear running out of things.

"People who were raised during the Great Depression have a great fear of deprivation and poverty and of not having enough," Hughey said.

Other times the clutter is a result of depression.

"The elderly, especially if they are alone, can be depressed," Hughey said. "They may not have the energy to clean house."

And sometimes the elderly simply keep many items because of sentimental value.

"What looks like an old piece of junk to you could have a good memory attached for someone else, which makes it a treasured item, " Hughey said.

That's why it's so important to be gentle when helping people clean out a home.

"You may think that's a ratty old chair, but it may have been the chair their spouse always sat in and they want it."

Maintaining control

The easiest way to dig out from a mess is to never let it get out of hand in the first place. But saying that is like locking the barn door after the horse escaped for many people. So Pollak offered the following tips on controlling clutter and collections.

Throw out old papers, magazines and mail if you haven't read them within a reasonable period of time. You probably never will.

If your collection is out of hand, vow to remove at least one item for every new item you buy. Replace two cheaper items with one better item.

Know how much space you have in your house and don't exceed it. Don't buy a dining room table that seats 12 for the breakfast nook, even if it's a great buy.

Sauls said people need to realize that collecting and clutter become unhealthy when it interferes with life.

"Some people will forego food or rent to feed their hobbies," Sauls said. If you have boxes everywhere and you walk through tiny aisles, it's a problem. Then your stuff is taking more prominence than your own, personal living environment. Mental health is a balance."


Collecting, says Dr. John Lion, a Baltimore psychiatrist, is healthy.

"It's a way to reach out beyond ourselves to other worlds, other cultures, other lives," Lion said. "But it can become unhealthy if it takes up too much of your life."

How can you tell if your collecting is becoming an obsession or an addiction?

If you spend more money than you can comfortably afford.

If your collection takes up so much room in your home that it intrudes on your living areas.

If you ignore your family, friends or job because you'd rather work on your hobby.

"Collections can become a substitute for living," said Dr. Jerrold Pollak, a Portsmouth, N.H., psychologist.

Clutterers usually start out as messy people, doctors say, but clutter can blossom into a problem. Clutterers often share similar issues:

They don't really want all the stuff littering their homes.

They are afraid of making a bad decision.

They will throw away items if others help them.

Hoarders, on the other hand, will rarely throw anything away. Even garbage. Pollak said hoarders usually have trouble making decisions and facing reality. Doctors say hoarders almost always need psychological help.

"They'll fight you to the end if you try to make them clean up," Pollak said. "They get very upset and depressed if you try to get rid of anything. It's very anxiety-producing for them."

Of course, collectors or clutterers also may cross the line. A person who earns $20,000 a year and spends $5,000 of it on a collection may have a problem, while someone earning $100,000 a year and spending the same amount may not.

And if a person has a large house and uses several rooms to store junk, that's probably fine. But if their house is small and the junk takes up needed living space, they probably have a problem, Pollak said.