Things That Keep Us Sane

Sophie Howarth considers the emotional valuables that help us find our way

Have a clear out. Get rid of all the stuff that clogs up your life, slows down your brain, makes you anxious, guilty, unproductive and confused. Curb your attachment to material things. So we are always being told.

Contemporary lifestyle wisdom seems to have it in for possessions. They are billed as both the cause and the symptom of the shallow, materialistic times we live in. Affluenza and stuffocation are just two of the recent words coined to describe our excessive attachment to things.

Oh crap. My home is full of stuff. Everywhere, shelves are bursting with cards and crafts and stamps and stickers. The notice board above my desk as I’m writing is two layers thick with poems, postcards, receipts and reminders. There’s a single earring on my desk which I don't want to throw out because it has a new kind of poetry without its partner. A pile of bills in front of me is held down by a stone bought back from a memorable walk on a beach in Scotland. On the windowsill behind me there’s a clock that broke more than a year ago: it stops time and that gives me a whimsical pleasure. Next to it is a millipede one of my sons made of conkers and pipe cleaners. Slightly rotten now, but still delightful in my eyes.

Far from threatening my wellbeing, all this stuff makes me feel good. Most of it is of next to no financial value, and a lot of it has rather questionable aesthetic value. But the jumble serves a purpose. It connects me to the people, memories, values and ideas that matter to me. Without my clutter, I don’t think I’d be half as creative or half as happy. I have no aspiration to a minimal interior, either in my home or in my head.

Being attached to stuff shouldn't get such bad press. Loving objects doesn’t make us greedy or materialistic. It makes us human. Whether it be rosaries or notebooks, talking sticks or worry beads, humans have always needed to things to hold on to.

In his magical book , the British anthropologist Daniel Miller visited the people living in every home along a single street in London. He found that those households with more stuff also had closer emotional ties, and concluded that objects are essential companions in the daily struggle to make life meaningful.

“The closer our relationships with objects, the closer our relationships with people.”

Daniel Miller, Professor of Material Culture at UCL, author of The Comfort of Things

His findings echoed these of veteran psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In an essay titled Why We Need Things published in 1993, he argued that although most of the things we make these days do not make life better in any material sense, they serve vital psychological purposes.

“The fact is that our hold over our mental processes is extremely precarious even in the best of times… and this is where objects can be helpful... The most frequent symbolic use of household objects is to give permanence to the relationships that define the individual in the social network. A woman feels a special attachment to the chair in which she sat to nurse her babies; a man looks with pleasure at the seascape hanging on the living-room wall, which he bought during his Mexican honeymoon; photographs chronicle the growth of children and grandchildren. Relatives of all kinds are recalled by the objects filling up the home. Families whose members have strong positive feelings for one another and for their home possess many objects that are cherished because they symbolise common ties.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, author of Why We Need Things

One woman Csikszentmihalyi interviewed as part of his research answered his questions with disdain professing that she was “not a goddam materialist”, that objects did not matter to her, that she cared only for human relationships. It turned out that she had no family and no friends. In general Csikszentmihalyi found, “if the home had few things that evoked meaning, its owner tended to be socially isolated.”

“Everyday things have the power to anchor memory, sustain relationships, and provoke new ideas. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.”

Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Studies at MIT, author of Evocative Objects

At Department Store for the Mind, we celebrate the comfort and delight that things can bring us. Drawing on long traditions from both spiritual and secular cultures, we make objects designed to help us stay connected with ourselves and the people who matter most to us. Our goods are designed with intention and manufactured with responsibility. Most are inexpensive - between £5 and £40. They aren’t flashy valuables; they are potential emotional valuables.

Choose them with thought, imbue them with affection, that’s what will transform them into the material things all of us need to sustain our emotional journeys through life.

Sophie is Founder of the Department Store for the Mind. Follow her @howarthsophie