Losing the clutter can be good for your mental health!


So there it all sits, amid the stick-on bows and pine needles. The gargoyle ashtray from Aunt Mimma (you’ve been a non-smoker for 43 years). The devilled eggs defiantly glaring back at you from the refrigerator. But the little voice in your head won’t shut up: “It’s wrong to be wasteful! Waste not; want not! Blah, blah, blah!’ The guilt is unbearable, even as the eggs wither, and the ash-gargoyle’s eyes mysteriously seem to follow you around the room. What to do with this post-holiday excess, as the disapproving voices of sixth-grade teachers long past (not to mention your pack rat friends) echo in your head? Nothing should ‘go to waste,’ right?

Wrong. Let’s be objective and intellectually honest about it. “Wasteful” means to discard something even though it still has potential use. It also means to dispose of your property in the way that you see fit. To claim that this is morally wrong is to imply that it does harm to others to throw something out—as opposed to, say, giving it away or even allowing it to gather dust in your attic. This mistaken view of morality rests upon the “zero sum” premise.

The zero sum premise means that you somehow harm somebody else by having ‘too much’ of something, or by not using something you have. For example, by having an excess of money, or, let’s say, cars, you are therefore denying money or cars to others. It’s the premise behind what some old-style schoolteachers used to tell their students: “Don’t throw that sandwich away. There are starving children in Russia!” Well, so what? The children in Russia are in no way affected by your eating—or not eating—that sandwich. It’s nothing more than neurotic, unearned guilt.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not one of those psychologists who is permanently ‘anti-guilt.’ Guilt is a healthy emotion when applied to things that actually are wrong and over which you have control. Studies of sociopathic criminals have revealed that those who impose violence on others often lack the emotional responses that most people feel when anticipating doing something wrong. An absence of guilt can lead to problems, both for the individual and the social order of civilization.

At the same time, feeling guilty for things over which you have no control accomplishes nothing, except to eat away at your mental and physical health. To feel guilty because you have more than somebody else doesn’t change the fact that you still have more than somebody else. If you really want them to have some of what you have, then simply go ahead and give it to them. Generosity is perfectly fine. But don’t engage in the pretense that refusing to throw away things that you don’t need or want will somehow help somebody else. All that does is raise your anxiety and stress.

This applies more now than at any other time of the year. Look around at all the opened presents and as-of-yet uneaten treats. You might feel that don’t need or want all this stuff. But you have to hold on to it, right? Wouldn’t it be ‘wrong’ to give things away or dispose of them? I saw a manners expert on the Fox News Channel telling people that there’s nothing wrong with ‘regifting.’ (Regifting means giving a present, originally from someone else, to a different person.) As long as the person who originally gave you the gift doesn’t find out, this is perfectly fine, according to the expert. I agree, but I don’t agree with his justification that it was ‘wrong to be wasteful.’ He stated this over and over. It annoyed me, because he was instilling unnecessary guilt in millions of viewers.

The point of regifting isn’t to avoid being wasteful. The point of regifting is to allow more space in your home to keep the things you value. Is giving the item to someone you’re certain will enjoy it better than throwing it out? Sure it is, but only because it makes you happy to see that other person happy. Giving has a selfish component, and that’s OK! When I moved a few years ago, I discovered clothes, some of them in excellent condition, that for one reason or another I no longer needed or wanted. I made a trip to the charity bin because it made me personally happy to think that someone would enjoy these clothes, as opposed to sending them to the dump. If I had reason to think that nobody would want them, I would have thrown them away without a second thought. I would never sacrifice my personal space and comfort to platitudes like, ‘Waste not; want not.’

Waste isn’t inherently bad—but not everyone believes it. I have a friend who refuses to throw out hotel soaps and shampoos he carts home from vacations. He doesn’t throw any of them out—EVER. He doesn’t use any of them, either. So why keep them? He replies, ‘Because it’s perfectly good soap and shampoo. You don’t throw out perfectly good soap and shampoo.’ But what if you don’t need it? ‘No matter.’ ‘A-ha!’ I thought, ‘This is the essence of the pack rat mentality!’ And the premise behind it? ‘Waste not; want not.’

The more you keep just for the sake of keeping, the more you become a slave to your things. I have counseled people who spend hundreds of dollars per month on storage units that ultimately cost far more than their stuff was ever worth.

So, as the leftovers cower in the shadowy reaches of the fridge, and the dust-collectors beg to be regifted, don’t succumb to the stressful guilt. A psychologically healthy life is not a zero-sum game.