Friday, May 10, 2013


I just finished teaching a writing class on material culture, “The Tyranny of Things,” to a group of college freshmen, eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. Over the semester, we covered minimalism and hoarding, planned obsolescence and trash production, “affluenza” and the American Dream, recycling and advertising. We watched Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff and read about the 100 Thing Challenge. We looked at photos of children from around the world with their most prized possessions and read defenses of materialism.

And the students wrote. They developed research papers on a variety of topics related to materialism, and they also made contributions to a class blog. In exploring their most meaningful possessions, Sabrina wrote about her fish tank and Colin wrote about a picture of his uncle. Kayle and Mike examined the American Dream. And Arland and Nick addressed the question, “Do we have stuff, or does it have us?”
And though many of the students admitted to being attached to a number of their possessions—chief among them their phones and computers—they were also drawn to the idea that our culture is suffering from “affluenza,” which, according to John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, is “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” In fact, a number of my students wrote of being deeply impacted by the ideas that Graham Hill articulated in a recent New York Times article. Once the owner of a 3,600-square-foot house, Hill has substantially downsized his life and lives in a 420-square-foot studio. Having discovered that “relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life,” Hill notes that while levels of consumer activity have risen since the 1950s, “happiness levels have flat-lined.” And a handful of students seemed to genuinely wrestle with the question of what it is—by going to college and eventually seeking a job and earning a salary—that they are working towards. Is it a big house, a new car, and the latest electronic gadgets? Or is it something else?

In his essay, Hill notes that the sizes of new homes in the U.S. have increased from an average of 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,480 square feet in 2011 while the average number of people living in each home has decreased from 3.37 in 1950 to 2.6. At the same time, people are not any happier with their new space; a recent UCLA study found that middle-class mothers in Los Angeles felt stressed when dealing with their belongings. I know all about this sort of stress. While my students are only embarking on their lives as consumers in America, I have a couple more decades of experience. And as someone who has lived in more than ten residences in three states over a dozen years, I am constantly trying to “downsize” my life, keeping the essentials and discarding the rest. I have made some progress. My current house has about half the finished living space of my previous house.
Recently I had a conversation with an acquaintance in town who began telling me about his “dream house.” Though he has owned his current house for only a couple of years and though the size of his house is the same as mine (which means that he and his wife have twice the per-person space as our family of four does), he is nonetheless dreaming of a larger, nicer home that he will be able to afford in the future. Like so many of us, he wants a dream house that is bigger, better, and somewhere else. I’ve now lived in enough houses that I’m tired of wanting to be somewhere else. I’m living in my dream house now. The fact that my per-person square footage is much closer to the 1950 average than it is to the 2011 average does not make me less happy. In fact, I might argue that the reduced living space causes me and the members of my family to focus on what’s really important and to spend more time together (not to mention the “carbon footprint” aspect)—but that’s a discussion for another time.

In contrast to the acquaintance pining after a dream house, another neighbor told me that she was putting her house on the market and moving to another house in town. Since I knew she had three children, I assumed she was moving to a bigger house—but I was wrong. “We’re moving to a smaller house,” she told me. “A much smaller house.” When I asked her why—which, by the way, is not a question that is typically asked of people who are upsizing—she replied, “Because we realized we don’t need all that stuff, all that space.” To come to this realization, I think, is liberating.
One of my students, Matt, wrote the following:

When we buy things, we feel a sense of happiness and accomplishment. I will not argue that it is a bad feeling; it is exciting and interesting to have new things. The problem is this feeling is short lived, and within a short amount of time we feel like we need to buy more. Things can only entertain us for so long before they get boring or lose their novelty effect. What happens after this is the item is either thrown out and replaced or put in a garage, attic, basement, or any other storage place where it sits for years until eventually it is thrown out. No matter what, our things are trashed and we feel the need to acquire more. How can spending mass amounts of money on things that you will throw out and replace feel liberating? It is like a never ending cycle of spending, disposing, and spending again. We are trapped in this idea and never seem to find any way to escape it.

One way to escape it, I think, is to think deeply about these issues, and to set goals and make decisions based on this insight. I wish I could have so clearly articulated my thinking about materialism when I was a first-year college student. Spending a semester talking about, reading about, and writing about stuff with college freshmen has helped me to further develop my own philosophy about material possessions. And it has helped me to see that whatever I have today—whatever house, car, phone, computer, wardrobe I happen to have right now—is enough. What I have at this very moment is enough.