For the Love of Stuff

December 21, 2014 Updated: December 21, 2014

Though many turn up their noses at materialism, being attached to possessions isn’t all bad. Objects can be bridges to other people, places, and times, and create meaning and comfort for their owners.

“If your house was burning, what would you take with you?” This is the question Foster Huntington asks in his Tumblr (turned book) The Burning House. More than 5000 people from around the world have answered his question in photo form, neatly lining up their most treasured possessions into aesthetically pleasing arrangements.

“At the time when I started the Burning House project, I was living in New York and working as a concept designer for men’s fashion,” says Huntington, now a 26-year-old freelance photographer living in Skamania, Washington. He said he was “inundated by this culture” that is based on the idea that you’re defined by the stuff you own. “I was interested in the idea that the stuff that’s really important to you isn’t necessarily the stuff that’s most expensive. I had jokingly started asking my friends what they would take if their house was burning, just as kind of a prompt, then I started taking my own photos of things, then posted it on the blog and opened it up for submissions.”

There are the practical picks—laptops, passports, and car keys—and the sentimental—photos, stuffed animals, gifts from family. (From his own burning house, Huntington says he’d save film negatives and his hard drive. “Other than that, it can all burn,” he says.) The volume of things chosen makes it seem like most of these people are planning for a pretty slow-burning fire, but if you don’t let yourself get bogged down in the logistics of the hypothetical scenario, the photos are interesting evidence of people’s relationship with objects.

To care about possessions can seem like a moral failing, like if these people were enlightened enough to know what truly matters, they’d be sending in empty photo frames. The holiday season especially can make people ornery about “stuff” and the companies that encourage us to buy it. But loving objects doesn’t necessarily make someone greedy or materialistic.

There are two kinds of materialism, according to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University. Terminal materialism is the kind typically derided as shallow and empty—wanting things for their own sake, or to impress others. What inspires someone to save something from a burning house is more likely instrumental materialism, when “the object is simply a bridge to another person or to another feeling,” Csikszentmihalyi says.

While things are, on the one hand, just things, they are also repositories for the meaning people project on them. Religious objects are obvious examples of things that transcend their thing-ness: A cross is just two pieces of wood but for what it represents to Christians; a menorah is just a candelabra, except that it’s not. Similarly do people build meaning around their possessions—a gift from someone’s mother might represent her love; souvenirs could be reminders of places close to heart but far from hand.

“Things embody goals, make skills manifest, and shape the identities of their users,” writes Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton in their 1981 book “The Meaning of Things.” “Man is not only homo sapiens … he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts.”

There is, of course, a continuum of how attached people are to their things; on one side the ascetics, on the other, the hoarders, most of us somewhere in the middle. Children often get attached to blankets or favorite toys—about 60 percent of kids in the U.S., by one estimate. For those kids, a teddy bear is not just a stitched mass of cloth and cotton, but something that signals safety, and maybe reminds them of the parents who gave it to them.

“As we age, the immediate need for those objects often declines, but that doesn’t mean that the attachment to them declines as well,” says Dr. Kiara Timpano, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami. When a kid grows up, he might not need his teddy bear to calm him during a thunderstorm, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still important to him. It may be important because of the history and memories it represents, and because it’s been in his life for so long that it serves as an extension of himself.

In a 1987 literature review, Dr. Russell Belk examines this idea of the “extended self” at length, concluding: “It seems an inescapable fact of modern life that we learn, define, and remind ourselves of who we are by our possessions.” The loss of possessions, ones deeply associated with the self, can cause real grief, Belk finds. If your house was burning, and you had no time to save your favorite things, you might feel like you’d lost part of yourself.

It might also feel like you’d lost connections to your loved ones. While John Bowlby, one of the creators of attachment theory, suggested that attachment to objects could take the place of attachment to people, other researchers have found that not to be the case. For The Meaning of Things, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton interviewed people in Chicago in the late ’70s about what things were special to them and why.