THE NEW YORK TIMES – SUNDAY REVIEW
By GRAHAM HILL
Published: March 9, 2013
I have come a long way from the life I had in the late ’90s, when, flush with cash from an Internet start-up sale, I had a giant house crammed with stuff — electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets.
Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn’t.
We live in a world of surfeit stuff, of big-box stores and 24-hour online shopping opportunities. Members of every socioeconomic bracket can and do deluge themselves with products.
There isn’t any indication that any of these things makes anyone any happier; in fact it seems the reverse may be true.
For me, it took 15 years, a great love and a lot of travel to get rid of all the inessential things I had collected and live a bigger, better, richer life with less.
It started in 1998 in Seattle, when my partner and I sold our Internet consultancy company, Sitewerks, for more money than I thought I’d earn in a lifetime.
To celebrate, I bought a four-story, 3,600-square-foot, turn-of-the-century house in Seattle’s happening Capitol Hill neighborhood and, in a frenzy of consumption, bought a brand-new sectional couch (my first ever), a pair of $300 sunglasses, a ton of gadgets, like an Audible.com MobilePlayer (one of the first portable digital music players) and an audiophile-worthy five-disc CD player. And, of course, a black turbocharged Volvo. With a remote starter!
I was working hard for Sitewerks’ new parent company, Bowne, and didn’t have the time to finish getting everything I needed for my house. So I hired a guy named Seven, who said he had been Courtney Love’s assistant, to be my personal shopper. He went to furniture, appliance and electronics stores and took Polaroids of things he thought I might like to fill the house; I’d shuffle through the pictures and proceed on a virtual shopping spree.
My success and the things it bought quickly changed from novel to normal. Soon I was numb to it all. The new Nokia phone didn’t excite me or satisfy me. It didn’t take long before I started to wonder why my theoretically upgraded life didn’t feel any better and why I felt more anxious than before.
My life was unnecessarily complicated. There were lawns to mow, gutters to clear, floors to vacuum, roommates to manage (it seemed nuts to have such a big, empty house), a car to insure, wash, refuel, repair and register and tech to set up and keep working. To top it all off, I had to keep Seven busy. And really, a personal shopper? Who had I become? My house and my things were my new employers for a job I had never applied for.
It got worse. Soon after we sold our company, I moved east to work in Bowne’s office in New York, where I rented a 1,900-square-foot SoHo loft that befit my station as a tech entrepreneur. The new pad needed furniture, housewares, electronics, etc. — which took more time and energy to manage.
AND because the place was so big, I felt obliged to get roommates — who required more time, more energy, to manage. I still had the Seattle house, so I found myself worrying about two homes. When I decided to stay in New York, it cost a fortune and took months of cross-country trips — and big headaches — to close on the Seattle house and get rid of the all of the things inside.
I’m lucky, obviously; not everyone gets a windfall from a tech start-up sale. But I’m not the only one whose life is cluttered with excess belongings.
In a study published last year titled “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century,” researchers at U.C.L.A. observed 32 middle-class Los Angeles families and found that all of the mothers’ stress hormones spiked during the time they spent dealing with their belongings. Seventy-five percent of the families involved in the study couldn’t park their cars in their garages because they were too jammed with things.
Our fondness for stuff affects almost every aspect of our lives. Housing size, for example, has ballooned in the last 60 years. The average size of a new American home in 1950 was 983 square feet; by 2011, the average new home was 2,480 square feet. And those figures don’t provide a full picture. In 1950, an average of 3.37 people lived in each American home; in 2011, that number had shrunk to 2.6 people. This means that we take up more than three times the amount of space per capita than we did 60 years ago.
Apparently our supersize homes don’t provide space enough for all our possessions, as is evidenced by our country’s $22 billion personal storage industry.
What exactly are we storing away in the boxes we cart from place to place? Much of what Americans consume doesn’t even find its way into boxes or storage spaces, but winds up in the garbage.
The Natural Resources Defense Council reports, for example, that 40 percent of the food Americans buy finds its way into the trash.
Enormous consumption has global, environmental and social consequences. For at least 335 consecutive months, the average temperature of the globe has exceeded the average for the 20th century. As a recent report for Congress explained, this temperature increase, as well as acidifying oceans, melting glaciers and Arctic Sea ice are “primarily driven by human activity.” Many experts believe consumerism and all that it entails — from the extraction of resources to manufacturing to waste disposal — plays a big part in pushing our planet to the brink. And as we saw with Foxconn and the recent Beijing smog scare, many of the affordable products we buy depend on cheap, often exploitive overseas labor and lax environmental regulations.
Does all this endless consumption result in measurably increased happiness?