What Your Space Says About You

Possessions are tied to identity in ways we may not appreciate until we try to purge them from our lives. The popular push toward minimalist spaces forces us to reckon with our “material” selves—and there are few uniform solutions.

By Sara Eckel, published July 2, 2018 - last reviewed on September 18, 2018

Just the Kitchen Sink: “We’re often told, ‘Have a place for everything and put everything in its place,’” says British economist Tim Harford, who has decluttered most of the common spaces of his home. ”That advice works in some places, including my kitchen. With a family of five, it gets pretty messy fast, but order is soon restored.”  Photo by James Hole

Max Daniels felt miserable.

After living with two years of nonstop construction noise in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, neighborhood, her nerves were frayed. Finally, she shed the city life for a new home in the quaint and quieter coastal town of Marblehead. As she packed for the move, she pushed herself to ruthlessly purge possessions, following the mantra of Japanese lifestyle guru Marie Kondo, whose best-selling tidying guides urge readers, above all, to shed any belongings that don’t “spark joy.” But once ensconced in her new three-bedroom home, Daniels found herself with an empty attic and a heart full of regret: Why did she get rid of so many beloved books? Why did she toss her late father’s favorite radio?

“I realized there was no space pressure on me,” she now says. “I don’t live in Tokyo.”

Daniels, a life coach, had initially found a lot to like in the system Kondo outlines in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy and says she doesn’t miss 95 percent of the stuff she tossed. But she also realizes that her mood affected her decision-making process. “For someone like me, who has a burn-it-down personality, it’s easy to think a clean-slate comprehensive action will make you feel better,” she says, “but if you are feeling low, nothing is going to spark your joy.”

Daniels is far from alone in feeling that she became too caught up in the urge to purge. Across the globe, the Kondo craze has had people dumping the contents of closets and drawers onto floors, hoping to cull them down to a few prized possessions. It’s part of a larger trend that favors airy, minimalist homes with highly curated accessories, while leaving a glut of no-longer-wanted family heirlooms homeless. Those anvil-weight bedroom and dinette sets of decades past now sit unloved in resale shops, while younger consumers pick up sleek particle-board furnishings that can be more easily moved or abandoned.

It’s no passing fad, says Paco Underhill, CEO and founder of the behavioral-research firm Envirosell, but the result of a confluence of economic, technological, and sociological factors that are likely here to stay. With so many of our physical objects transformed into pixels, we don’t need as many bookshelves and CD towers. At the same time, wages have stagnated, boundaries between office and home have loosened, and women now constitute nearly half the labor force. As a result, families don’t have the mental resources or bandwidth to deal with dust collectors; spare surfaces and unadorned furnishings are easier to maintain. Women’s professional lives also give them more varied outlets for personal expression than were available to their mothers and grandmothers, who might have invested significant energy in determining whether their family homes would be done up in American Colonial or French Provincial.

That might make Sam Gosling’s job a bit harder. The University of Texas at Austin psychologist is a professional snooper: He makes personality assessments based on the way individuals use and decorate their spaces, and sparsely furnished homes present his teams with a challenge because less stuff means less data.

Our Stuff, Ourselves

We deploy our things to tell the world who we are, says Gosling, the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. Whether the message is sent via a priceless oil painting or a bumper sticker, it’s important to us that others receive it. “People tend to be happier and more productive when they are able to convince others to see them as they see themselves,” Gosling says. He cites his Texas colleague William Swann’s work on self-verification theory, which finds that being seen as we see ourselves is even more important to most people than is being seen positively.

When others think we are more optimistic, athletic, or intellectual than we really are, it makes us feel misunderstood, Gosling says, and sets up stressful situations—at some point, we know, they will be disappointed. “When you don’t feel understood, the world is not a predictable place,” he says. “I have a terrible memory, and a lot of people say, ‘You can’t have a terrible memory; you are a professor.’ When people react to me that way, I think they don’t get me, and this will make future interactions with them difficult, like when I see them in two years and have no recollection of them.”

In showcasing our personalities through clothing and furnishings, we attempt to make ourselves understood. Of course, in our homes, as on our social-media pages, we also curate and cherry-pick. The biography of Harriet Tubman gets an eye-level spot on the living room bookshelf; the dating self-help book is tucked in a nightstand drawer. “It’s complicated,” says Gosling. “We understand that it’s part of the social norm to present yourself in a good light. There is also a difference between playing up your good side and making false impressions. You might have high-brow books in your living room, but those are also books you truly value.”

He gives the example of a young woman who prominently displays her snowboard in her dorm room, rather than keeping it in the closet. “She didn’t buy a snowboard and just leave it out. She’s playing up a side of her that’s real, and also showcasing it.”

The desire to broadcast our personalities through our possessions is one reason they can be so hard to toss out. “A great deal of attachment to objects is about a personal identification,” says Gail Steketee, dean of Boston University’s School of Social Work, who counsels people living with hoarding issues. A book lover may take great pride in the volumes towering in her office and feel that discarding even one means losing a bit of herself. A cooking enthusiast might jealously guard his stockpile of restaurant-grade pots and pans, even if he only ever uses a few. To counter this urge, Steketee urges clients to focus on the activity itself—by joining a book club or throwing a dinner party—rather than on the paraphernalia. “An artist is much better off spending time doing the artwork than accumulating more supplies,” she says.

Standing Out: “I spend 150 nights a year on the road,” says behavioral researcher Paco Underhill, who lives in New York City’s West Village. “So every day I’m home I spend time in my garden.  Wordsworth called it ‘esthetic refueling.’  In a busy life, in a busy city, the garden is private and remarkably quiet.” Photo by Celeste Sloman

Conspicuous Minimalism

Those who do manage to shed excess clutter often speak glowingly of the experience. Ten years ago Janet Munro and her husband purchased an 880-square-foot house on a small lake in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with plans to tear it down and build a bigger house. The downsize had been dramatic: In their previous house, the bedroom walk-in closet alone was 640 square feet. But after five years of putting off the construction project, they realized that living a less stuff-filled life left them more clear-headed and content. “We have one closet in the entire house,” says Munro, a program director for a children’s welfare agency. “It’s awesome. Every time we talk about building, we realize that we don’t need all of that.”

As anyone who has ever hauled bulging garbage bags to the local Salvation Army knows, clearing out clutter feels good. A study co-authored by University of Arizona marketing professor Catherine Roster found that physical clutter “has a direct negative relationship to one’s sense of well-being, safety, and self-identity in one’s own space.”

Of course, clutter is in the eye of the beholder. Bookshelves crammed with mementos and tchotchkes can feel cozy and comforting to one person, claustrophobic to another. At the same time, a room denuded of all evidence of human presence may seem blissfully pure to one occupant and painfully antiseptic to someone else. The key questions: Is your stuff—or lack of it—interfering in your life? Does it make you feel overwhelmed? Are you aggravating the people you live with by leaving your possessions everywhere, or by tidying up their things?

Artist and writer Carolita Johnson has no wish to live in a home that resembles a yoga studio. “I have stuff,” she says. “I have multiple jobs, multiple lives, and multiple sets of tools. I live in a region with four seasons. I have my books, my paintings, my art supplies, my dog’s stuff. I’m a human. I don’t live in a hotel.” Johnson is happy in her Kingston, New York, home, but notices that her visitors are prone to offering sanctimonious speeches on the virtues of downsizing: “They will say, ‘You have so much stuff. I don’t like having a lot of stuff. I feel freer without too much.’”

Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental studies professor at New York University, finds a lot of virtue signaling in the decluttering movement. “We used to have conspicuous consumption; now we have conspicuous minimalism,” says Jacquet, the author of Is Shame Necessary? She believes the trend is partly inspired by genuine consciousness raising—a desire to purchase sustainable materials and to know the circumstances under which our sneakers and smartphones were created—but that it is also perpetuated by the idea that we exert our power through our consumption habits, rather than through civic engagement. “When you look at all these narratives, it’s no surprise that people say, ‘I have to focus on clearing up my own life first,’” she says. “It’s a way of exerting control in a disordered world.”

But shifting to a Danish-modern couch or coffee table does nothing to lighten one’s environmental footprint, she says. It’s a point she recently made to members of her academic department, whose offices will soon be redecorated with austere blond-wood furnishings. While the new pieces will use sustainable materials, Jacquet argued that the lowest-impact choice would be keeping the old furniture. She was overruled and now laments the impeding loss of her beloved hand-me-down office sofa. “It’s made of down and it’s completely luxurious, but I’ll have to upgrade to some IKEA piece of crap because aesthetically it won’t fit in.”

Her colleagues’ desire to upgrade as a way of showing their relevance is a contradiction she says many businesses and families wrestle with. “Do we keep our old things because we want to reduce waste, or do we upgrade because we want people to think that we’re displaying a set of values that isn’t actually inherent in these decisions?”

While sustainability has become a buzzword in the marketplace, a study by University of Bath management and marketing professor Iain Davies found that protecting the planet isn’t the primary motivation for purchasing eco-friendly goods. Davies conducted in-depth interviews with 39 women who frequently purchased clothing from retailers focused on sustainability. While the consumers said they wanted to reduce waste and support the environment, none expressed interest in joining a movement—to the contrary, they more strongly wanted the bamboo fibers to set them apart.

“There is no huge appetite in these consumers to change the market,” Davies wrote in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour. “They are not really acting as activists and demonstrate a reticence about the idea of changing others. They also see their consumption choice as keeping them out of social norms and like the individuality that creates. Our interpretation is that should their style become the new fashion, many of these consumers would actively resent the mainstream consumers who followed in their wake.”

Home Base: “I never really formed a concept of home,” says Arikia Millikan, a writer and information architect who travels about three months a year and considers her one-bedroom rental in Berlin to be just one of her “bases.” As a child, Millikan moved often and says, “My mother would tell me, ‘Home is where your stuff is.’ I have internalized that.” Photo by Oliver Mark

The Death of Heirlooms

Growing up, Patty Chang Anker did not associate her living space with her identity. Her Chinese-immigrant family lived in a small rental apartment with few decorative touches. “A lot of our stuff was hand-me-down or bought on sale. You had a room with four white walls that you weren’t allowed to change other than to stick up a poster,” says Anker, a writer who recounted her pack-rat tendencies in the book, Some Nerve: Lessons Learned while Becoming Brave.

Grieving the belongings they’d left in China, Anker’s parents painstakingly saved for “heirloom” pieces that could be passed down to their children and grandkids and bestowed upon Anker an expensive, well-made desk that she came to realize just wasn’t her. With trepidation, she told them she was replacing it with a desk from Pottery Barn and was relieved when they accepted the news gracefully. “I’m glad I didn’t hang on to the assumption that the relationship was that fragile, or that my parents didn’t have the capacity to evolve and move on,” she says.

Anker now frequents estate sales near her home in Pleasantville, New York, where she finds that she’s far from the only adult child who has disposed of parents’ legacy pieces. “You realize all the grown kids whose parents have passed on don’t want that stuff,” she says. “They don’t need three dining sets. Who even needs a formal dining room? Nobody lives like that anymore.”

The way we use our houses today is completely different than it was a generation ago, Underhill says. Contemporary houses with two master bedrooms now command a premium price because the traditional nuclear family—two married parents and their children—has become a minority configuration: More people share living spaces with roommates, siblings, or aging parents. And within those homes, we no longer segregate activities by room, either. We stream movies in bed, take conference calls from the back deck, and encourage kids to do homework at the kitchen table, rather than leaving them to go online in their rooms with the door closed.

“I like to have a cup of coffee and toast in bed,” says Underhill, who enjoys his breakfast routine while logging on to his devices and starting his workday. But it has taken his wife, who is Turkish, some time to understand this instinct. “When she was growing up, nobody ate in the bedroom.”

Clutter or Comfort?

For someone who wrote a book defending messiness, British economist Tim Harford is surprisingly bullish on Marie Kondo. Harford says that her philosophy helped him clarify his emotional relationship with many of his things as he decluttered his Oxford, England home. During a recent purge, he unearthed an old textbook that no longer had value as reference material—the project for which he’d consulted it had been completed years earlier—but he’d held on to it long after discarding many similar books. The reason: It reminded him of his mother.

While he was reading that book, Harford says, his mother was dying. “It was an emotional time, and I have a very clear memory of sitting on a bench in hospice reading it,” says the author of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives.

While we use some possessions to broadcast our personality, heritage, or values, we keep other things for ourselves alone. The family photograph on your nightstand or facing toward you on your desk serves a different purpose from those you place on the living room mantle. “These are thought and feeling regulators that we use to make us think about certain things and feel certain ways,” Gosling says.

Items like old mix tapes or a child’s baby blankets have the power to transport us back in time, which is why they can be so difficult to part with, says Smith College psychology professor Randy Frost, a co-author, with Steketee, of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. “Possessions have a magical quality, an essence that goes beyond their physical characteristics,” he says. “If you think about a ticket stub, there is nothing special about its physical characteristics, but a memory is attached to it. It calls up that experience in a really intense way, more intense than if you didn’t have that stub and thought of the concert.”

The problem comes when every ticket stub and textbook evokes a memory, and so we keep them all for fear of losing the moments—or dishonoring their former owners. That’s what got Max Daniels so hung up on her father’s radio. She knew she’d never play it, or even display it in her home, but she was still filled with guilt after tossing it. “My dad doesn’t live in the radio; he is in my heart,” she says. “So I don’t know why I’m so fixated on this dumb radio. It’s probably more related to feelings of how I could have been a better daughter.”

Many bereaved adult children get stuck in this trap, Steketee says. “People think that if they throw away their mother’s special teapot, they’re being disrespectful to her. But if she is gone, she doesn’t care, and if you have an important place in your heart for your mother, then the object doesn’t matter. Guilt is a useful emotion if you’ve done something wrong. If you haven’t, then it’s just in your way.”

When sentimentality keeps clients clinging to objects that don’t serve them, Frost encourages them to tell each possession’s story—how they got it, what it means to them—and then consider how it fits into their life now. While time-consuming, this process can foster decision-making skills. “Eventually you’ll be able to make those decisions on a grander scale,” he says.

You don’t need a professional to listen to your tale of that candy dish or baseball-card collection—any pair of ears will do, including the stranger you sell it to at your garage sale. “Even if the buyer doesn’t care about the story, it helps you relive the memory and say good-bye,” Roster says.

For Harford, recognizing why he’d kept the textbook enabled him to let it go. “An economics textbook is not a fitting memorial to my mother, so at that point I was able to say, ‘This thing was part of a moment in my life, thanks.’ Then I donated it with absolutely no regrets.”

Living Tiny: “Having less space allows for better communication,” says Steven Mejia of Los Angeles, “by forcing us to face disagreements since we can’t really get away from each other.” Mejia, his wife, Sarahi, and their son, Eli, downsized from a 2,000-square-foot home to a 339-square-foot “tiny house,” discarding approximately 80 percent of their possessions in the process. “Less stuff allows for us to concentrate on what is truly important, to learn more about each other, and be less selfish and more present,” he says. Photo by Patrick Strattner

The Allure of Container Porn

Sarah Ashman Gillespie is a confessed aficionado of “container porn,” like Container Store catalogs and copies of Real Simple. She has diligently tried to fold her towels to ribbon-bundled, camera-ready perfection, and she has devoted countless hours to taming closets and drawers. “I can make a beautiful kitchen drawer—everything neat, with pretty dividers,” says Gillespie, a retired publishing executive who lives in suburban New York. “But three months later, it’s crammed full again.”

Not everything in a person’s house has a deep meaning or emotional resonance. A lot of it is just stuff. When you leave a hairbrush on the bathroom vanity or a sweatshirt draped over the banister, you’re probably not expressing your values or personality. You’re probably not thinking about those issues at all. Such physical traces of our activities are what Gosling calls behavioral residue. “This mess just reflects the fact that we don’t put things back when we are done with them,” he says.

As anyone who has lived with another human knows, the volume of behavioral breadcrumbs we leave in our wake varies widely from person to person. Our inclination to tidy relates to the personality trait of conscientiousness, which is relatively fixed in individuals. “People who are high on conscientiousness see things that others don’t,” he says. Have you ever visited a friend’s perfectly ordered house and been asked to forgive the chaos? “I don’t think they are messing with you,” he says. “In their view, everything is a mess.”

Gosling compares his own untidy office to a colleague’s space, which has alphabetized journals and pencils lined sharp-side-up in their holder. “If you turned over one of the pencils, she’d notice it straight away. But you could turn over half the books in my office and I wouldn’t notice for a while.”

In other words, Gillespie’s efforts to make her home resemble a shelter-magazine spread are probably a lost cause—a conclusion she says she has finally come to grips with. Now, rather than trying to make all those garlic presses and lemon zesters line up in a row, she strives to devote her time to activities she truly enjoys, such as ballroom dancing and singing in a choir. “As I get older, my time is shorter. How do I want to be spending it? Probably not creating the perfect kitchen drawer.”

Different Faces, Different Spaces

Using Kondo’s method of paring down to one’s most cherished belongings and assigning them a permanent place, Harford has successfully kept his kitchen and bedroom tidy. His home office space, however, is covered in papers, a perceived failure for which he used to beat himself up. But after researching it further, Harford realized that workspaces ought to be seen as fundamentally different from bedrooms or kitchens because they’re more dynamic. Cereal bowls and sweaters always go back to the same spot. But desktops, both physical and digital, need to be more fluid. “You can’t take each email and say, ‘Does this spark joy?’” he says. “A lot of the stuff that comes across a desk doesn’t have an obvious place or category. It could be the spark of an idea that will turn into something big, but it takes a little while to figure out.”

So he, like most of us, puts such items in a pile, an action that seems like punting but may actually be the wisest approach. A study by University of California, Santa Cruz psychologist Steve Whittaker found that people who allow papers to sit in an uncategorized stack for a period (but not forever) worked more efficiently than those who immediately filed everything. Those frequent filers tended to stash things out of sight before they completely understood their relevance.

How can we tell if we need to change our habits? Roster, a member of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, is a proponent of picking up, but notes that only a small slice of the population is ready to practice extreme minimalism. “Clutter is normal,” she says. “In all our studies, we have found that most people have some degree of it. The point at which it becomes unhealthy is more defined by the individual.”

A Separate Space: “My office works much differently than my kitchen,” Harford says. “It’s not possible for everything to have a place: The space is too dynamic, with long-term and short-term projects and a constant inflow of unpredictable demands. Sometimes my desk is tidy, but sometimes it’s a mess for weeks or months. I’ve made my peace with that.” Photo by James Hole

Mantras and guidebooks can help, but it’s important to remember that many people lead rich, productive lives, even with sweaters left on armchairs or dishes in sinks. Harford, for his part, has found that he’s not the only one who has suffered from cluttered-desk shame. On his book tour for Messy, he discovered that many of the reporters who interviewed him expressed palpable relief when he shared his findings about the benefits of an untidy desk. “I lost track of all the highly successful journalists and TV hosts who said, ‘Oh, I feel so much better now.’ It was strange. They were successful people, and knew they were successful people, and yet they were still beating themselves up about this.”

Harford notes that Benjamin Franklin wrote near the end of his life that he was disappointed that he never mastered the virtue of orderliness. “I love the idea of Franklin kicking himself because he couldn’t tidy his desk up,” he says. “If only he’d had a tidy desk, he might have really achieved something with his life.”

Franklin was ahead of his time in both his philosophy and his worry. If he were around today, Steketee might advise him that the best way to maintain a sparer lifestyle is to not buy so much stuff in the first place, because it will always be “easier to learn to control the acquisition side.”

That’s true for Daniels, who has bought no new clothes for a year and sharply reduced other purchases as well. “I know the cycle, so it’s easier to work through,” she says. “I ask myself, Where am I going to put this object? How long will I enjoy it? How long before it goes in the attic? And then how long before I have to declutter it?”

Johnson, however, isn’t changing a thing: “In the Middle Ages the first sign of sainthood was shedding your belongings, no longer needing to eat or drink, no longer excreting. I can confirm that I’m not a saint.”

SARA ECKEL is the author of It's Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single.

Facebook image: Franck Boston/Shutterstock