Apr 26, 2016 | By

The Downsides of “Good Stuff” – What Can This Teach Us?

I read some shocking news recently about the rising epidemics of compulsive hoarding and obesity, and I wondered – are these related? It is hard to dispute the significant benefits of material and technological advancement and convenience. In much of the world today there is an abundant supply of relatively cheap and high quality food, housing, transportation and a vast array of goods and services. While there continue to be pockets of terrible deprivation and hardship (due more to political factors than technical ones), the world is, overall, a significantly easier and healthier place to live than in centuries past.   Yet, there are negative side effects of material success – side effects that more “stuff” will not solve.th-1

Compulsive hoarding, defined as a distinct mental disorder since 2013 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is now recognized as a serious issue in the US, and it is getting worse. Historically the disorder was the target of comedy and derision, and it gained wide notoriety from the popular TV show Hoarders that ran from 2009 to 2013 (and reappeared this year). According to an April 11 article in the Washington Post, compulsive hoarding now afflicts up to 9 percent of the US population – 19 million people. It is now twice as common as obsessive-compulsive disorder (with which it had previously been “lumped”). Hoarding is not just a behavior – it is accompanied by changes in brain function in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in thinking and emotion.   According to one victim the appeal of acquiring and holding onto more stuff is compelling: “Part of it is for the high. It’s an addiction, sort of. But it’s also to fill a void. It fills a lot of void.”

This is clearly a case where more material goods is not positive – in fact, it’s a disease. The fact that the disease can be characterized as “filling a void” raises the question – what void is the victim trying to fill? The biological and psychological factors behind the disease are complex, so there is no simple answer to this question for those suffering from the disease. However, it does seem that all of us, to a degree, experience the behavior of trying to fill a void in our lives with stuff. Indeed, the infamous phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” was popularized more than a century ago and still captures the idea that inadequacy in material trappings is a driver of poor self-esteem. Does “keeping up” by acquiring more stuff really make us happier? Of course not. But it is a behavior that is difficult to resist.

Obesity is also a disease of material excess – in this case, excess adipose tissue resulting from nutritional and behavioral factors. The consequence of the disease is a significant deterioration in the victim’s health. The disease has been growing at an alarming rate. According to a study released by the Imperial College London (published in the journal Lancet), in the last four decades global obesity among men has tripled, from 3% to almost 11%, and obesity among women has more than doubled, from 6% to 14% – a total of 640 million individuals are now obese. While some may argue that obesity is a function of poor access to nutritional foods and lack of education, the statistics say otherwise. The most obese country in the world is also the wealthiest, and one of the best educated – the United States. Others have argued that obesity is simply a problem with willpower. The scientific findings dispute this. The factors that contribute to obesity are varied; The disease involves a complex interaction of genetics, metabolism, nutrition and behavior.

Obesity, like hoarding, is a disease of excess. As the author of the Lancet study notes: “over 40 years we have transitioned from a world in which underweight prevalence was more than double that of obesity, to one in which more people are obese than underweight.” During this period, the world food supply has increased significantly faster than population – there is more food to go around. In many countries, food consumption patterns have also shifted to “fast” foods that are incredibly convenient, inexpensive, highly caloric and enhanced with sugars, fats and other taste enhancers.

More food, more taste and more convenience seems to be driving the obesity epidemic. But we are all subject to the impulses of excess. Whether our indulgence is coffee, chocolate, beer, pastry, pasta or ice cream, each one of us has a “comfort food” that fills a craving. Some of us are just lucky enough (in our genes, metabolism, nutrition or behavior) not to become obese.

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In the cases of hoarding and obesity, it seems that material abundance has produced a counter-intuitive consequence – the human race has become more compulsive and is eating, by choice, too much of the wrong foods. These diseases are not the only ones attributed to the superfluity of goods and choices in modern life. With vastly more choices and options open to all of us (food, goods, entertainment, education, travel, social interaction, digital connectedness), stress levels have increased. There is evidence that stress can contribute to heart disease risk, autoimmune disorders, weakening of the immune system, and the growth of cancer. There is also evidence that marketers and promoters are well aware of, and capitalize on, our compulsion and vulnerabilities – by offering more stuff, more food, more medicine (or illegal drugs), and more exciting distractions. Is any of this going to alleviate our stress, reduce our compulsions or improve our body mass index?

No. So, is modern life giving us “too much of a good thing?”

Conclusion:

That good things can lead to such distress should make us all wonder — what is it about our relationship with the things of modern life that makes them such a problem.   This is, after all, a relationship — a relationship between material stuff and conscious, cognitively rational human beings. Who is in charge, anyway? Perhaps the problem is not with the things but with our personal and collective attachment and investment in those things.

Things, considered in and of themselves, do not have a value. They can be good, or bad, or neutral. Their value is determined only in the context of how they are perceived, appreciated and utilized by us. This means that our value system – the underlying framework that shapes what we believe and what we choose – is what determines the goodness or worth of things. Somehow, our value system is investing more “worth” into the stuff of modern life than that stuff really deserves.

Our value system is a complex amalgam of personal wants, desires, aspirations, faith and purpose. It is shaped by our experience, our culture (including family, peers, society and media) and by our deliberations on what is important and why.   Most of the time, most of us let experience and culture set our values without very much deliberation.

So perhaps we need to recognize that the diseases of the modern world are, in part, a disease in our value systems. We have accepted and embraced messaging that the acquisition and consumption of stuff will make us happy without adequate deliberation and reflection. The prescription for this disease is awareness, education, deliberation and reflection. We need to reconsider these messages – incorporating and prioritizing into our thinking the values that we want to guide our lives. Then we need to apply those values to our life in order to properly shape and balance our attachments to the things of the modern world.

This is not going to be easy. I suspect, though, that as we reflect, deliberate and reconsider, we will find that modern “stuff” is less valuable than it seems. By re-prioritizing what we value, we can free ourselves to reconnect with aspects of our life that have more intrinsic value – personal relationships; enjoyment of nature; appreciation of beauty; being useful in meaningful ways; sharing loving-kindness with neighbors; or helping the world at large. Good luck.

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