For the Love of Stuff

Though many turn up their noses at materialism, being attached to possessions isn't all bad. Objects can be bridges to other people, places, and times, and create meaning and comfort for their owners.

Shutterstock/The Atlantic

“If your house was burning, what would you take with you?” This is the question Foster Huntington asks in his Tumblr (turned book) The Burning House. More than 5000 people from around the world have answered his question in photo form, neatly lining up their most treasured possessions into aesthetically pleasing arrangements.

“At the time when I started the Burning House project, I was living in New York and working as a concept designer for men’s fashion,” says Huntington, now a 26-year-old freelance photographer living in Skamania, Washington. “I was inundated by this culture that was based around the idea that you define who you are by the cool shit that you own. I was interested in the idea that the stuff that’s really important to you isn’t necessarily the stuff that’s most expensive. I had jokingly started asking my friends what they would take if their house was burning, just as kind of a prompt, then I started taking my own photos of things, then posted it on the blog and opened it up for submissions.”

There are the practical picks—laptops, passports, and car keys—and the sentimental—photos, stuffed animals, gifts from family. (From his own burning house, Huntington says he’d save film negatives and his hard drive. “Other than that, it can all burn,” he says.) The volume of things chosen makes it seem like most of these people are planning for a pretty slow-burning fire, but if you don’t let yourself get bogged down in the logistics of the hypothetical scenario, the photos are interesting evidence of people’s relationship with objects.

To care about possessions can seem like a moral failing, like if these people were enlightened enough to know what truly matters, they’d be sending in empty photo frames. The holiday season especially can make people ornery about “stuff” and the companies that encourage us to buy it. But loving objects doesn’t necessarily make someone greedy or materialistic.

There are two kinds of materialism, according to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University. Terminal materialism is the kind typically derided as shallow and empty—wanting things for their own sake, or to impress others. What inspires someone to save something from a burning house is more likely instrumental materialism, when “the object is simply a bridge to another person or to another feeling,” Csikszentmihalyi says.

While things are, on the one hand, just things, they are also repositories for the meaning people project on them. Religious objects are obvious examples of things that transcend their thing-ness: A cross is just two pieces of wood but for what it represents to Christians; a menorah is just a candelabra, except that it’s not. Similarly do people build meaning around their possessions—a gift from someone’s mother might represent her love; souvenirs could be reminders of places close to heart but far from hand.

“Things embody goals, make skills manifest, and shape the identities of their users,” write Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton in their 1981 book The Meaning of Things. “Man is not only homo sapiens … he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts.”

There is, of course, a continuum of how attached people are to their things; on one side the ascetics, on the other, the hoarders, most of us somewhere in the middle. Children often get attached to blankets or favorite toys—about 60 percent of kids in the U.S., by one estimate. For those kids, a teddy bear is not just a stitched mass of cloth and cotton, but something that signals safety, and maybe reminds them of the parents who gave it to them.

“As we age, the immediate need for those objects often declines, but that doesn’t mean that the attachment to them declines as well,” says Dr. Kiara Timpano, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami. When a kid grows up, he might not need his teddy bear to calm him during a thunderstorm, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still important to him. It may be important because of the history and memories it represents, and because it’s been in his life for so long that it serves as an extension of himself.

In a 1987 literature review, Dr. Russell Belk examines this idea of the “extended self” at length, concluding: “It seems an inescapable fact of modern life that we learn, define, and remind ourselves of who we are by our possessions.” The loss of possessions, ones deeply associated with the self, can cause real grief, Belk finds. If your house was burning, and you had no time to save your favorite things, you might feel like you’d lost part of yourself.

It might also feel like you’d lost connections to your loved ones. While John Bowlby, one of the creators of attachment theory, suggested that attachment to objects could take the place of attachment to people, other researchers have found that not to be the case. For The Meaning of Things, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton interviewed people in Chicago in the late '70s about what things were special to them and why.

“There were some people who told us ‘Your questions don’t make any sense to me, I’m not materialistic … people matter to me, not objects,” Csikszentmihalyi says. “But in other parts of the interview, we asked them to think about friends and family, and people who said they didn’t have any special objects turned out not to have any special relationships either.”

Rather than serving as a poor substitute for human connection, it would seem that objects can amplify those connections.

What Sung, a filmmaker from New York City, would save from a burning house (Courtesy Foster Huntington/The Burning House)

Though attachment to objects seems universally human, people vary widely in what they get attached to and why, as the photos on Huntington’s Tumblr demonstrate. Csikszentmihalyi found differences of age and gender during his interviews—men, he says, were more likely to pick objects related to hobbies, while women often chose family heirlooms. And older people tended to point out photos, while teenagers more frequently chose electronics.

At the simplest level, things that belong to someone tend to be more meaningful to that person than things that do not belong to them, an effect called “mere ownership.” A tchotchke in the hand is worth two in the store.

But it’s possible to be attached to things you want to own but don’t yet. “Some people show pre-ownership engagement with objects, says Dr. Maryam Afshar, who wrote her dissertation on object attachment at Washington State University, and now works at marketing research firm MECLABS. “They associate themselves with what they are going to have even before they own it.”

A close relationship with the things one owns can make it “difficult to sometimes distinguish between what is ‘me’ and what is ‘mine,’” Afshar says. People on the far end of the object attachment continuum—those with clinical hoarding—are often characterized by extreme emotional involvement with their possessions, studies show.

One aspect of this, which Timpano has researched, is anthropomorphism. In her 2013 study, she found that thinking of objects as possessing human traits was linked to a greater tendency to acquire and save things. People might feel responsible for their possessions, and like they need to take care of them, making it harder to part with things. The study notes instances of people talking about their possessions being “lonely” without them, or wanting things to go to a good home if they got rid of them.

“If you perceive something as human, then that renders it worthy of moral care and consideration,” Timpano says. Toy Story 3, in which a grown-up and his anthropomorphized toys part ways, is widely regarded as an emotionally devastating movie. I have often blamed the Toy Story franchise for the guilt I feel about the pile of abandoned stuffed animals in my childhood bedroom.

But “maybe Toy Story wasn’t at fault,” Timpano says. “Maybe it was reflecting something that’s very real, that lots of people can associate with.”  Even knowing their things are (probably) not coming to life, people, even non-hoarders, might still save them because they feel responsible, or because they think it might reflect badly on them as people to get rid of the things. What does throwing away an old teddy bear say about someone? That they’re practical? Wasteful? Grown-up? Uncaring?

“I think our attachment with objects is this kind of dance between how we view ourselves and the values that we have, and then what those objects represent to us,” Timpano says.

In her study, Afshar measured attachment using six kinds of value an object might bring someone: sentimental, service, social status, social interaction, sales price, and self-concept.

Objects can offer more than one kind of value at a time, of course. On the face of things, a wedding ring might seem like a clearly sentimental object, and a refrigerator might seem like a clearly “service” one.

But, “say the refrigerator was owned by someone’s mother who passed away recently, and now she gets to have the one that her mom was using in the past few years,” Afshar says. Then there’s some sentimental value and maybe some self-concept value mixed up in there as well. In that case, the fridge isn’t just utilitarian, and isn’t as replaceable.

Some of the most pictured Burning House objects are laptops and smartphones, and replaceability is one factor that distinguishes them. Many of the other things people named as their favorites in Afshar’s study—jewelry, instruments, art—had been with them for years and were perhaps valuable in part because they were old. But while people were attached to their connected devices, they were also pretty willing to trade them in for newer models, or replace them if they got lost.

People get attached to their computers and phones because of what they can do, not because of what they are. “In these types of objects, there’s a physical part that we need because we are physical beings. And then the virtual or nonphysical part,” Afshar says. It’s the nonphysical things that would be distressing to lose—photos or music saved on the hard drive, or, even more nebulously, access to the Internet and all of its communication potential. These things are enabled by the object, but have little to do with what it physically is. “Objects of our time are not stand-alone objects anymore,” Afshar writes, meaning the nature of people’s attachment to some of their most important possessions is even blurrier.

Perhaps, though, this is just a new manifestation of something people have always valued about their objects—a representation of human connection. This is a thread Huntington has noticed throughout the submissions he’s received. “[They’re] mainly objects that people use for communicating and expressing their voice to the world. Like letters, laptops, cameras, musical instruments. Things people use to be heard with, like a cell phone. The older generation, they had letters, books, and newspaper clippings, stuff like that … that’s the way they communicated.”

Csikszentmihalyi told me a story of two widows he interviewed in Chicago who lived in the same building, five stories apart. The first, when asked to point out special objects in her home, pointed out her refrigerator, because it was “easy to open.”

“She could talk about anything,” Csikszentmihalyi says. “We thought apparently we’re not going to get anything interesting by interviewing this way.”

When they asked the second woman the same question, she immediately stood up and took them to the bathroom, where she opened the vanity over the sink to reveal a shaving brush and a razor. They belonged to her husband, who had passed away several years before. From there, she showed the researchers photos of her children and grandchildren, and Christmas presents she’d received the year before.

“The house was kind of alive with the presence of people who were not present physically, but were there in her mind,” Csikszentmihalyi says. “We came out from that feeling that if we had looked at life satisfaction, it was obvious that the second woman was much more alive than the first one, in part because she felt connected to so many other people.”

“It has been an important experience to see how people can take ordinary things and transform them into meaningful symbols,” he continues. “We can create aesthetic experiences—not only aesthetic, but ecstatic—by paying attention to what’s around us, finding the beauty in things that you normally pass over.”