The idea for a new book by UCLA researchers sounds pretty boring. A team of anthropologists went into 32 typical homes — middle-class, dual-income families, with school-age children — and cataloged what they saw. Sorta like going to a bunch of open houses, or perhaps just looking around your own home. Only when described in the cold, nonjudgmental language of academics, the average American family’s stuff sounds like an obsessive hoarder’s collection. In the first home they entered, researchers listed more than 2,000 possessions on display in a mere three rooms.
UCLA Magazine recently published a feature about the work of the Center on Everyday Lives of Families, a years-in-the-making research project that has resulted in a book, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors. In the course of the research, 20,000 photographs were taken as well as 1,540 hours of video interviews and tours of homes.
“If everyday life in the first few years of the twenty-first century has been characterized by anything,” the book’s authors write, “it is the American family’s willingness to work hard and shop hard, purchasing one well-marketed new product after another and taking on debt in a vigorous show of consumerism.”
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The place that this consumerism is best shown off is, of course, in the home. A Washington Post op-ed excerpted some of the researchers’ findings:
“The first household assemblage we analyzed, of Family 27, resulted in a tally of 2,260 visible possessions in the first three rooms coded (two bedrooms and the living room),” and that didn’t include “untold numbers of items tucked into dresser drawers, boxes and cabinets or items positioned behind other items.”
That doesn’t count what families held in storage units either. On a single display shelf in a girl’s bedroom, for example, the following was cataloged: “Beanie Babies, 165; Human/Animal Figurines, 36; Barbie dolls, 22; other dolls, 20; Porcelain dolls, 3; Troll, 1; Castle miniature, 1.” The items may sound mundane, probably familiar if you have daughters. What’s remarkable is how quickly the possessions pile up and how normal it has become for us to be swimming in stuff.
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Kids’ stuff is probably the most likely to multiply in a home, and at a rapid pace. According to a study from a few years ago, the average American child receives roughly 70 new toys per year. Anthony P. Graesch, one of Life at Home‘s authors, offered an explanation to UCLA Magazine as to why today’s parents are so inclined to indulge their children with more and more stuff:
“Dual-income parents get to spend so very little time with their children on the average weekday, usually four or fewer waking hours. This becomes a source of guilt for many parents, and buying their children toys, clothes and other possessions is a way to achieve temporary happiness during this limited timespan.”
We’ve all heard about how money and possessions can’t buy happiness. The UCLA researchers say accumulating bigger piles of stuff may in fact decrease happiness and increase stress. Moms frequently used phrases such as “mess,” “not fun” and “very chaotic” to describe their homes, where toys, clothes, trinkets and food overflowed into garages, closets and attics. “It’s difficult to find time to sort, organize and manage these possessions,” said Graesch. “Thus, our excess becomes a visible sign of unaccomplished work that constantly challenges our deeply engrained notions of tidy homes and elicits substantial stress.”
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Essentially, we’re paying good money to clutter our homes, raise our stress levels and increase our frustration. Who wants to go shopping?
Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.