After working as a professional organizer for more than 20 years, I thought I'd seen it all, until I had the opportunity to work on the season premiere of Hoarding: Buried Alive for TLC. I met a woman whose life had spun so out of control that she filled two homes on the block to the point that she had to crawl through the bedroom window to sleep at night. Since she couldn't stand up inside the house, she had to change clothes out in the driveway of her suburban Chicago home. It was a sad example of a life shut down, never picking up the pieces—literally. Life seemed normal on the outside—Mary was well put together, sweet, kind and gentle—but on the inside chaos ensued.
Though many of us would never escalate to such a grand level of accumulation, it was, nonetheless, a clear picture of a common aspect of American culture: We love to collect and over-collect. We pile possession upon possession to the point of overwhelming complication. We hang on to stuff as if excess and accumulation can isolate us from the problems of our lives. We hold on to so much stuff, in fact, that storage facilities are the fastest growing sector in commercial property over the past three decades.
Of course, most of us don't become hoarders, but what causes us to over-collect and complicate our lives to the point that we feel out of control? Why do we hang on to so much that we are overwhelmed by material possessions? We shouldn't associate accumulation with success. Barry Schwartz, in "Why Societies Should Pursue Happiness" talks about how happiness doesn't rise in lockstep with wealth. In fact, he says, it begins to decrease at a certain level of affluence. After all, you can't take it with you, so why not lighten the load and enjoy people and experiences rather than things.1