The Hard Facts: Friends vs. Possessions

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Some of our respondents were upset by our questions about special objects and told us that they were not materialists, and things mean nothing to them. It is people, not objects that count. … This rejection of the symbolic mediation of things in favor of direct human ties seemed plausible at first, until we began to notice that … [t]hose who were most vocal about prizing friendship over material concerns seemed to be the most lonely and isolated.  … Those who have ties to people tend to represent them in concrete objects.” (The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, via Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin)

What a great argument for the pack rats among us! There are so many cases being made for the simpler life these days. Minimalism is the counter-message in a world filled with iphones, ipads, ipods, and a pair of shoes for every occasion. I feel like I’ve read countless articles and seen plenty of talk show segments about families who have tossed all their stuff and now live in a yurt somewhere with only their loved ones and a fire to cook rice on. (I think I just combined an Oprah episode and the premise of Survivor.)  The message seems to be that we don’t need so much stuff, that possessions distract us from what really matters–friends, family, relationships.

But according to this research, people who deny the importance of possessions and instead insist it is only relationships that matter actually feel lonelier. This is because, as Gretchen Rubin explains, we “use possessions to memorialize important relationships and experiences.” If your BFF lives in California and you live on the East Coast, you might display a picture frame with a great photo of the two of you, or a paperweight you bought on a trip together. (Or, if you’re me, a mug of butterbeer you bought on a wizarding adventure. Whatevs.) The sight of these possessions will remind you of your bestie and make you feel more connected, even if you don’t see her often enough. It’s through an object’s associations that it becomes special, and in turn fends off loneliness.

This is not an argument for hoarding. Having piles of crap around your house is not going to make you feel less isolated. But it is an argument for sentimental objects. My dad used to say “When in doubt, throw it out.” I think there’s some truth to that. But if you just can’t bear to toss those old song packets from your summer camp days (guilty) at least know that they’re more than just lists of lyrics, but relics that help you feel connected.

Do you hold onto objects that you associate with some of your best relationships or memories? Or are you a “people over objects” person? Are you surprised that the people who claim to value people over possessions were actually found to be more lonely?

13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Hard Facts: Friends vs. Possessions

  1. Emily

    Wouldn’t this be a prime example of why people (me included) hang onto items from previous relationships or admirers? Not to mention all the random photographs shoved in boxes ona shelf in my storage room. It does surprise me that people who claim to value the person more than objects are lonelier, but it makes a lot do sense!

  2. Hmm… I’m a sentimentalist, but also a minimalist. I’ll keep things only if they have some practical use (and are regularly being used) or if they have sentimental value. Otherwise, I hate clutter and don’t want too much stuff lying around. However, I also have almost no friends, so maybe there’s some truth to that.

  3. So true. This might help me understand which factors contribute/augment my loneliness.

  4. Christina

    I hold onto handwritten letters and postcards I have received over the years, but if my friends have given me gifts that I don’t really care much for, I just regift those items and give them to other friends. After all, one person’s trash, may be another person’s treasure, lol.

  5. Jen Q

    Maybe living in a culture that says people who have a lot of things are successful means those that defy culture and do not value things find themselves in the minority and therefore it is not as easy to find like minded friends. With that said,I have no trouble making friends nor keeping them. Do I feel lonely? Only in that I feel “outside” of my culture. My friends are usually people who opt out of the mainstream in some way too. There’s plenty of us if you know where to look. And I require no sentimental objects to remember or value people, and value them I do deeply. My experiences make me question this study’s validity or at least the conclusions drawn.

  6. I am surprised, but it kind of makes sense. I know I’d feel a lot lonelier in my apartment if it was empty! And it’s not just about having things that remind me of other people, although that’s part of it. I also like keeping a nice apartment, because to me a clean apartment is one where friends could stop by any time🙂

  7. I’ve kept all the letters I’ve ever received (neatly organized in boxes, of course), and going through those letters has been a lifesaver on more than one lonely, blue day. I also keep a notebook of the funny and nice things friends say to me.

  8. project1979

    This is the deal: I have boxes of S#$%* that I go through every few years and ponder all the letters, the photos, the memories of people who meant a lot to me (or still do). And then I close up the boxes, barely paring down the bulk and move on to collect other things! I think it’s clear, especially as I confess right now that I need to chuck a lot of stuff. Yikes! Who needs old high school notes? That being said by a true memento hoarder, I do realize that, especially now with my life being mostly on the road, that those little reminders (letters, mostly) of friends and loved ones keep me grounded, especially the note from my grandma who will love me regardless if my show does well or not🙂 Thanks for raising the question. Perhaps it’s streamlining the memories into small, transportable things that you can actually see and touch, not the boxes that are collecting dust in your parents’ garage (hypothetically speaking). Or maybe it’s just about knowing that this problem is a great problem to have-that there have been so many great memories that we don’t know where to put them all!

  9. It is true that object that represent past experiences or people in our lives helps to keep memories alive. However, I wouldn’t say those who value people over possessions are most lonely because some memories are better forgotten. If you have objects that activate bad memories of a friend or an horrible relationship, you might want to get rid of them. It all depends on what makes a person feel good and at peace with themselves. If you have a lot of activities and valuable relationships, loneliness will never be an issue regardless of objects kept or not.

  10. Deborah - d.mooncrab

    I like to keep both, person and things related to that memory. If we part, I’d keep the things as memories and make efforts to meet up once in a while, and preserve our bond. But when the person drops off forever, years w/o connection, or the re-union no longer feels connected -a few attempts, than I toss the things along with the memory and connection with that person.

  11. You were reminding me of a friendship version of Gretchen Rubin from what I’ve read, so was so happy to see this post! I just finished the book and loved it. I like things, but only things that I love and have meaning. Peyton, my husband, is a slllight hoarder, not gross in any way, but just has problems getting rid of stuff. But it just sits in boxes for years and he doesn’t look at it or get anything from it. This is the kind of stuff I hate. I love going through old cards and letters and CDs, etc. to bring back memories. What’s funny to me is that Peyton had quite the empy bachelor pad when I moved in, at least on the outside, but two rooms and a garage full of stuff in boxes. Now the house is much fuller, but to me it flows and is cohesive and happy and home. Everything has a it’s place, and everything we have gets appreciated. I’m really much happier with the house like this than when it was empty.

    (Was commenting as themurrayedlife before without realizing… Actually named Christina :))

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