Could you even imagine? Open any drawer, like this one at my desk where I am currently seated, and you are likely to find a motley assortment of objects. In this case: lip balm, a hair band, nine pens, three sample bottles of random lotions, a pair of old eyeglasses and some cables that don’t appear to belong to anything in particular. Oh, and a molded imprint of my infant daughter’s foot, which would be really sweet except that she’s now 8. So why is it still in the drawer?
As much as I am mesmerized by the prospect of a tidy life and a rightful place for that foot imprint, I can’t shake the feeling that even if I wrangle order out of this drawer, or my sock drawer, or all the drawers in my home, the space will refill again. Maybe not in a week, but soon enough the clutter will creep back in and chaos will return.
Anyone who’s moved from a small apartment to a larger one, or better yet, from an apartment to a house, has experienced that feeling of expansive space. So many closets! So much room to spread out! And yet, somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you know that eventually every nook and cranny will be filled. The stuff will come from somewhere — gifts, impulse purchases, office freebies — and take up residence in those empty drawers.
“Acquiring things actually feels good,” said Travis L. Osborne, a psychologist who treats hoarding and obsessive-compulsive disorder and is the director of the Anxiety Center at the Evidence Based Treatment Centers of Seattle. “You get a little dopamine burst in your brain when you go shopping, so that behavior is reinforcing, you want to do more of it.” Because we accumulate objects in dribs and drabs over time without really paying much attention, “we can just sort of fill up space,” he said.
For some people — roughly 2.5 percent to 5 percent of the American population — the need to hold onto stuff rises to the level of hoarding, a diagnosable mental disorder. The rest of us fall somewhere along a continuum from purgers to savers, wondering what should stay and what should go. “The challenges and the thoughts that people struggle with about hoarding aren’t really different than the thoughts that the rest of us struggle with,” Dr. Osborne said.