As a boy, my son Peter collected seashells — most were found during morning walks along a variety of shorelines from Maine to Florida to Kauai; a few were purchased in souvenir shops; a very special few were ordered from seashell suppliers. Peter spent hours arranging his shells, sorting and displaying them with intense concentration and pride. These days (Peter is now a college senior), the bulk of his collection sits in a dusty box on the top shelf of his closet. But even though this hobby may have lost its appeal, I suspect Peter might always name his seashell collection among his prized possessions.
Why do we love the things we love? For most people, the appeal of an object has little to do with its monetary value. Typically, we prize certain possessions because of some intangible quality that’s supremely personal. When a team of researchers from Arizona State University examined the motivation behind human attachment to possessions, they found that people form attachments when objects help narrate their life story. These lifeless “things” become artifacts of the self.
It’s not the earrings I prize, but rather the memory of what it felt like to be fresh in love with such a good man.
That explanation certainly resonates with me. I have a pair of teensy emerald earrings in my jewelry box. They are the first gift my husband ever bought for me during the first year of our courtship. He obsessed over that purchase, trekking from one shop to another to obtain the brightest stones, and forked over what were big bucks for him at the time. It’s not the earrings I prize, but rather the memory of what it felt like to be fresh in love with such a good man. Those tiny green studs are artifacts of my emotional history.
Think about something you treasure. Chances are your devotion to it is due to a sweet memory or passion or beauty or friendship or the magic of discovery – or some mix of those things. My other son, Nick, keeps all his concert ticket stubs. They remind him of his love for music and the pleasure he gets out of every show he attends. My father-in-law has an impressive array of martini shakers arranged atop his bar, a testament to his appreciation for objects that are functionally beautiful. Of all the art I own, the pieces I’d never part with are the drawings created by my brother. Each reminds me of his singular talent but more importantly, of our deep connection to one another.
That desire for connection is why, after a hurricane, you see people sifting through the rubble of their flattened house, searching for their photo albums. Of all their lost belongings, those pictures and the connections they symbolize are what they need most. The handmade birthday and Mother’s Day cards our children create fall into this category, as do necklaces made of macaroni and clay trivets shaped like lopsided sea turtles. These items might be disintegrating right now in a box in your basement, but there’s no way you’re throwing them away.
People form strong attachments if possessions remind them of their autonomy or independence.
There are other forces that drive our deep and enduring bond to the things we treasure. The Arizona researchers also found that people form strong attachments if possessions remind them of their autonomy or independence. In fact, in their study the bulk of valued possessions were not gifts but rather items people had purchased for themselves. Some prized possessions remind their owners of a feeling of pride or confidence. Trophies and medals – no matter how long ago they were awarded – recall a moment in time when we felt really good about ourselves. I am not a great athlete by any stretch, but I do have a medal I won in a high-jump competition in junior high school. I love that thing. Even dogs aren’t immune to the thrill of being recognized for a job well done: My terrier, who is neither obedient nor gorgeous, once won a ribbon for the waggiest tail. She pranced with it around her neck like Miss America sporting her tiara.
Part of the beauty of prized possessions is you needn’t justify their value to anyone. It doesn’t matter why you treasure them. You just do. Paul Bloom, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University sums it up this way in his book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like: “What matters most is not the world as it appears to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing really is.”
So if you’ve got a box of your mom’s handkerchiefs that still contain a trace of her fragrance, go ahead and revel in the inhalation you take every couple of years. If you’ve got a laminated minnow pin that your father-in-law gave you, wear it as a reminder of the day you realized he actually loves your quirkiness.
Okay, those are mine, but you get the idea. No matter how weird they may seem or how inconsequential they may be to someone else, your treasures are integral to who you are. They tell your story.