unStuff: The psychology of clutter and the magic of owls (with audio)

First published for a Christmas time Transition Towns audience, Dec 2013 – link

Owls are brilliant. Where I’m from people are more accustomed to the sleep shattering squawk of unfairly maligned seagulls. Herring Gulls to be more precise (click below). With an unsavoury reputation for attacking bins, and occasionally stealing the chips of unsuspecting tourists, the endearing cackle they also make is under-celebrated. To my ear, I imagine the mirthful chuckle of schadenfreude, as a neighbour makes a feathered faux pas. Still, there is something precious and thrilling for this city boy about the joy of listening to owls at night.

Children play in the stream at Transition Camp '13 – David Spink / Mike Grenville
Children play in the stream at Transition Camp ’13 – David Spink / Mike Grenville

Reflecting on the highlights of the last year has got me pondering my relationship with things and the fun of unStuff. As the soft focus lens of my memory seeks things that my death-bed-self will thank me for, the ones that appear through the mists aren’t really ‘things’ at all. And certainly not things bought and delivered in haste from click to clutter. And I wonder where owls fit into the ‘stuff’ I’ve accumulated.

I think of things like Transition Camp this past October, of the magic of serendipitously parking my tent under golden trees favoured by chatty owls. Wrapped up and cosy, the owls escorted me toward a festival of dreams of the sort associated with conversation fuelled by nettle wine around campfires, beneath a riot of stars against dark skies.

Transition Camp is a place where people involved in or curious about taking fun action for happier, healthier communities beyond fossil fuels, can gather. There’s workshops and talks, inspiration, relaxation and delicious food. There’s time to chat and swap stories about what has been working and what hasn’t been, while the kids play in ditches and make pizza. It’s a time to pause and take stock, celebrate achievement, let go of frustrations, walk in the woods, imagine, plan, and laugh. Perhaps to reconnect with what it is that we really want from our lives, or maybe just bask in the last of the year’s warm rays. There is no need to carry money and because participation is encouraged, there is a sense that everybody makes the event together, and the cost is kept very low for everyone. It’s a breath of fresh air, both literally and figuratively.

In fact Transition Camp is probably the exact opposite of most people’s experience of the Christmas and New Year holidays. Frankly, this time of year brings out quite a grumpy reaction in me, managed only by avoiding all of the worst and embracing all the best of it. In The psychology of Christmas, Maria Page warns that “the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisfied,” and engaging in environmentally conscious consumption also predicted a happier holiday.

Credit: www.moderntoss.com
Credit: www.moderntoss.com

In The psychology of stuff and things, Christian Jarrett describes how a close association with objects can hinder personal resilience. Further, it hinders our ability to be happy and appealing: “Research…has revealed an association between holding materialist values and being more depressed and selfish, and having poorer relationships.” Meanwhile, “the purchase of experiences leaves people happier than buying material products,” and “materialistic people were liked less than people who appeared more interested in experiences.” A recent article by Oliver Burkeman agrees that people who are more materialistic are less able to cope when life throws up setbacks, and claims that feelings of loneliness can be exacerbated.

Gosh, but hang on. Is everyone who has accumulated a lot of objects *shuffles awkwardly* really at risk of a life of eternal misery, before we’ve even considered eco-guilt? Is all stuff bad? And don’t our possessions also serve a useful purpose?

According to Jarrett our possession of objects and brands can be an important aspect of identity. As infants we form crucial relationships wth Transitional Objects, for example a blanket or teddy bear, which provide familiarity and comfort during the anxiety of loss and separation of identity from the mother. We continue to form attachments to objects and experiences as adults, which may be healthy or unhealthy. Apparently science is still undecided about where my extensive record collection sits on that spectrum.

So, if giving up material things of the sort that contributes to debt, isolation, depression, and environmental and social harm, means also giving up what they mean to us, then maybe we should hesitate before exhorting simply the purchase of less stuff. And maybe we should be rebranding to a sort of good stuff, that includes experiences too.

“Materialism isn’t bad per se, it depends on people’s buying motives” reports Jarrett. “To the extent that acquisitions are motivated by intrinsic goals such as affiliation, belonging, pride and self-reward… materialism will improve well-being,” and if purchases serve to broadcast our persona, there may be no adverse affect if signals are ‘true to the self’.

Spot the chamois, which are as brilliant as owls.
Spot the chamois, which are as brilliant as owls.

As someone who once helped to promote Buy Nothing Day by parading in my pants, and who has been trying to de-clutter, the allure of a Buy Nothing Christmas and the eschewing of stuff is attractive. However, perhaps this is more about being conscious of the stories, meaning and attachments that I have unwittingly accumulated, and the ones I want to invite into my life. Perhaps I need to shift the focus away from objects, to my relationship with them and the purpose they fulfil.

My Best Of The Year list includes: the magic of owls, the satisfaction of meaningful work done well and appreciated, discovering four and five leaf clovers with a lover, helping others in need, harvesting delicious figs from the garden, leading a marriage celebration, stumbling across chamois in a mountain forest, a sense of progress and achievement in life, discovering the bizarre marvel of nightjars while wild camping, empathetic joy in the accomplishments of friends, setting fire to a hoard of old paperwork and turning the ash into compost. And the surprise gift of my Ideal Green Woman, fashioned from clay and furnished with moss and twigs, and presented to me by giggling friends, with the encouragement to bring her to life.

A model of my ideal Green Woman. Apparently.
A model of my ideal Green Woman. Apparently.

There has been plenty of frustration and challenges too, but I notice that pausing to appreciate and celebrate the year’s Good Stuff, lifted my spirit. And hereon I will be reimagining my definition of the stuff I want to accumulate, to something like ‘things and experiences which enhance the wellbeing of myself, people and planet.’

Perhaps I’ll call it unStuff, the opposite of objects borne of an abusive relationship with nature and people, that will endure a retirement of immortality in landfill. Perhaps really I’m just accumulating meaning and pleasant emotions, crutches which help me cope with difficulty, an identity which meets hidden needs, and a comfort blanket to reassure me.

Nigel Berman, author of the neat How To Have A Good Christmas booklet suggests games that aren’t battery operated for playing together at Christmas, and going for a good walk with no hurry or agenda, for magically solving problems. I think I’ll take him up on that.

unStuff. Now that feels like the kind of thing I want more of. Might help me be a bit less Bah Humbug, and a bit more HoHoHo.


Martin Grimshaw, facilitator and trainer at There’s Better Ways Of Working

Twitter @ThrivingPlanet

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