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Your Stuff – A Very Demanding Mistress

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Hello there! Thank you for taking time out to think about our stuff and clutter and possessions.

As a start, let’s think a little:

Have you a clear idea of what is in your house? Do you know what items lie in the drawers, nooks and crannies? Can you remember what you packed into those boxes in the garage or loft?

They must be pretty important because if you are anything like me, you paid good money for them. You carefully brought them home, and… you’ve moved them from drawer to drawer, box to box or even from room to flat to house to house to house over the years. Careful curation of your belongings.

Sound familiar?

Filled to the Brim

Did you know that the average person in Britain currently owns 53 items of unworn clothing, 36 CDs and DVDs that are never played, and seven pairs of unwanted shoes?

Or that the average British woman buys 59 clothing items each year and has twice as many things in her wardrobe today as she did in 1980 and has 22 things in there that she has never worn.

Anthropologists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) concluded after extensive research, that in much of the West, we live in "the most materially rich society in global history, with light-years more possessions per average family than any preceding society".

We eat more than we need.

We buy more stuff than we could ever use.

We live in an age of immense abundance in the West.

In times gone by, material goods were expensive and scarce. Clothes were so hard to come by that they were handed down from generation to generation. A historian called Eve Fisher has calculated that before 1750 and the onset of the industrial revolution a shirt would have cost around £2,000 in today's money. But now, things - shirts, shoes, toys and a million other consumer items - are cheap.

Are our cups of peace running over?

With so much material wealth and security it seems logical to believe that we must feel calm, secure, and confident. Ready to take on the world. Happy with our cups running over.

Turns out that is dead wrong.

The kicker is that – stuff is a VERY demanding mistress.

Two psychologists who worked alongside the anthropologists at UCLA investigated how people feel about their homes and tested them for the stress hormone cortisol.

Cortisol is our fight-or-flight- hormone.

Cortisol gets some bad press, but it is uniquely designed to protect you when you face danger. “How exactly?”, you may ask. It does a brilliant job to slow or shut down nonessential functions in your body so that all your focus and attention is placed on facing the threat – or sprinting away on your stilettos.

We’d all agree this is useful when rescuing your child from dashing after a ball in a busy street, or rushing to Waitrose before closing time on a Sunday afternoon for a pint of breakfast milk.

But there is trouble in ‘paradise’ if cortisol levels remain elevated over long periods of time. Let us see how research connects cortisol to clutter …

Fight or Flight for Clutter

I am willing to bet that you have never thought, “I wonder what happens to my hormones as I pack away my bits and bobs?”

Astoundingly, the UCLA psychologists discovered that women who have issues with clutter have the signature pattern of cortisol that is associated with people who have chronic fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a higher risk of mortality.


Yes – All the mum’s stress hormones levels spiked when they had to take care of belongings.

Better believe it: Stuff is a VERY demanding mistress.

More is Less

Take a moment before you read on and have a think: what is the knock-on effect of a bigger house and more possessions.

On a practical and financial level, here are a few ideas:

  • More to clean – higher spending on cleaning agents, greater carbon footprint and your time.

  • More to maintain and fix – think of those battles to find the surly handyman.

  • More to organise – and conflict to get the kids to pack their stuff away.

  • More debt – and arguments with your partner over money.

And what happens on a physical level if you have too much cortisol?

The ‘pleasant’ symptoms include fatigue, rapid weight gain, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or muscle weakness.

Life in the 21st Century is meaner than you thought and some of the stress we bring on ourselves. It is no wonder that our possessions and clutter crowd out peace, flexible well-being, good-humour and stable moods.

Are you exchanging a simpler clutter-free life for mood swings, anxiety, depression or irritability?

I would like to suggest there is a better way: Less is actually more. < = >

Less clutter = more quality of life on so many levels.

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