The Clutter Culture
By Jack Feuer
Published Jul 1, 2012 8:00 AM
Too Much Is Never Enough
"The American workplace is intense and demanding; when we come home, we want material rewards, like people all around the globe," Ochs says. "What distinguishes us is the normative expectation of hyperconsumerism. American middle-class houses, especially in Los Angeles, are capacious; refrigerators are larger than elsewhere on the planet. Even so, we find food, toys and other purchases exceeding the confines of the home and overflowing into garages, piled up to the rafters with stockpiled extra 'stuff.' " Ironically, the study found that our need to reward ourselves materially may actually increase our stress—at least for moms. In their video tours, mothers use words like "mess," "not fun" and "very chaotic" to describe their homes. The CELF team's psychologist colleagues, Darby Saxbe M.A. '04, Ph.D. '09, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California, and UCLA Psychology Professor Rena Repetti, looked at study participants' levels of diurnal cortisol, a measure of stress, through saliva provided by the families. And they found that there did seem to be a link between how families, especially mothers, talk about their home spaces and their diurnal cortisol levels.
"It's difficult to find time to sort, organize and manage these possessions," says Graesch. "Thus, our excess becomes a visible sign of unaccomplished work that constantly challenges our deeply engrained notions of tidy homes and elicits substantial stress." Ochs has encountered some of this in her own life. The most crowded room in her house until April was her study, which used to contain a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, desk computer, printer, small television, couch, rocking chair, coffee table, piano, guitar cases, amplifiers, yoga benches and mats. Then she and her husband bought a large, flat-screen TV and suddenly there was no longer any room for her desk and work tools. As of this writing, Ochs admits to being "a nomad wandering around the rest of the house, trying to find a new niche to call my study."
So the stress of the material world can get to anybody. Well, almost anybody.
"Fathers in their home tours would walk in the same rooms their wives had come through and often made no mention whatsoever of the messiness and were unaffected psychologically," says Arnold. "This was pretty astonishing." For these dads and for many of the older children, Arnold observes, artifacts are a source of pleasure or pride, and so for these family members, possession leads to contentment. Besides, she adds, "Who has time to clean up?"
Everything I Need To Know Is Stuck On My Refrigerator
Chez nous, the kitchen is the command center. The study notes that "the kitchen is perhaps the most important space in daily family life: a site of frequent congregation, information exchange, collaboration, negotiation and child socialization. It is a crucial hub of logistical organization and everyday operations for dual-income households." And in the domestic command center, the refrigerator is mission control.
"I don't know what American couple has a refrigerator that doesn't get things stuck to it," says one mom in her video home tour. "You can see there are quite a lot of things stuck to ours. Pictures, reminders, addresses, phone lists that have not been good for years and years." The typical Life at Home refrigerator front panel holds 52 objects (and sometimes stuff is stuck on the side panel, as well). Some household fridges were fairly clear of clutter, but almost all had what the study calls "high object densities." The most crowded refrigerator was covered with 166 different objects.
This stuck-on stuff, in fact, often covers as much as 90 percent of the fridge. It's a multi-purpose, place-based, 270-degree representation of the family's history and activities, highlighting the personal (photos, child's art projects or school work, awards); the practical (calendars, schedules, coupons, invitations, rosters, phone numbers); or the pretty (the most common objects displayed were decorative magnets).
"It's such an effective organizing device," says Arnold, whose own refrigerator hosts abstract art magnets and travel magnets from such evocative destinations as Australia and Sequoia National Park. Also a couple of phone numbers, but no photos or schedules. As they moved deeper into their study, the researchers noticed a correlation between the number of objects families put on their refrigerators and the rest of the stuff in their homes. They write that "a family's tolerance for a crowded, artifact-laden refrigerator surface often corresponds to the densities of possessions in the main rooms of the house … the refrigerator panel may function as a measuring stick for how intensively families are participating in consumer purchasing and how many household goods they retain over their lifetimes."
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