Simple-Living Lessons I Learned From "Hoarders"


Give me a strong cup of coffee and a marathon of the TV show "Hoarders," and I will get my house cleaned. It seems there’s nothing quite so motivating as a caffeine-fueled, hoarding-motivated cocktail to whip my house in shape and restore my sense of simplicity and balance.

Without making light of the very real journey each of the featured guests are on, there are some quiet truths I always take away from that show. "Hoarders," and shows like it, are commentaries on American consumerism and reminders (in the extreme) of what’s important in life. What follows are a few simple-living lessons I learned from "Hoarders" — lessons that are timeless and universal; lessons that go well beyond the shock and awe of what viewers see on the show. (See also: 25 Things to Throw Out Today)

Things Are Only Valuable If They’re Used

The value of anything we own lies in the beauty, joy, or usefulness it brings. Though, arguably, hoarders may get some satisfaction out of possessing things, each thing is rendered useless because of the sheer quantity of competing items, their condition, and their inaccessibility. If I have 15 dustpans, how can know where they all are? How can I use each one? Why would I need to? What is an unused dustpan besides conceptual art?

There Is an Inverse Relationship Between Quantity of Things and Joy

This is an important and hard-won lesson. We all need a basic level of material items to live a convenient and comfortable life. But after a certain point, objects crowd us out, require too much maintenance, monopolize our time, and require near-constant labor to pay for. Over time, the chase for newer, better, bigger, different, and more things saps our joy. Recognizing this, simplifying our needs, and embracing our own optimal level of "stuff" is liberating.

Objects Become More Useful When They Are Shared

As mentioned earlier, hoarding objects renders most of them useless. That’s because the value of an object typically lies in its utility. Hoarding so much that there’s no way to use it all takes the worth out of objects. But putting stashed items we don’t or can’t use back into the consumer cycle takes them out of the abstract. Isn’t it wonderful to give an item to a friend, donate it charity, sell it in a yard sale, or set in on the curb, knowing it will be used? An old lawn mower mows again; a great book has new reader; a rusty bike gets a new lease on life.

Possessions Reflect Our Inner World

Whether we like it or not, the things we choose to surround ourselves with reflect our inner world. Sometimes, it’s a literal reflection; sometimes, it’s artificial. But things always have way of displaying our priorities, confessing our fears, and betraying our secrets. People who struggle with hoarding are stark examples, but maybe no starker than the rest of us.

It’s a Fine Line Between Acceptable and Not-Acceptable Shopping

Our modern consumer world can be a confusing place. Shopping, spending, saving, and storing is beyond a national pastime — it’s downright patriotic. It seems to me that the line between a typical consumer and hoarder is sometimes drawn quite arbitrarily. Maybe hoarding shows strike such a chord with audiences because we all see a bit of ourselves on the screen.

Objects Tend to Distance Us From One Another

Not only is there a declining return on joy once we reach a certain level of material comfort, there’s also a decline in intimacy and connectedness to one another. Maybe a bigger house isolates us from our neighbors, the expense of a new car forces us to work 10 hours more per week, or a smartphone kills the family dinner conversation. New toys can be wonderful, but without mindful use, they can intrude upon and interfere with our most important relationships. Watch any random episode of "Hoarders" to see the havoc that unchecked accumulation has on friends and families.

My hat goes off to each of guests featured on the show. The lessons they’re learning so publicly are lessons we can all take to heart in large and small ways. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

Are you a fan of "Hoarders"? How do you react to shows like it and how has it changed your behavior or attitude about what’s enough?

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Guest's picture

That show makes me so, so sad. I want to hug every single person while at the same time turn off everyone's TV because it isn't fair to publicly make fun of someone's private disorder.

Guest's picture
The Gray Adder

Hoarders would work better as a one-off documentary than as a series. If there is one thing we have too many of in today's world, it's cable channels. Everything you just said about the crap in one's house easily applies to cable TV. At some point, the quality of each of the dozens or hundreds of available channels is diminished to the point where we begin to ask ourselves why we're still paying so much money for all of that.

Do we really need 20 shopping channels (to fill your house with more crap)? 15 channels of "Jesus TV" (to fill your head with more crap your own minister wouldn't recognize as Gospel)? Fox News? I sympathize with anyone going through this situation, their friends, their loved ones, and so on, but when you take something that would have worked fine as a two-hour documentary film and make a TV series out of it, you end up with nothing more than something to fill that 7 PM slot - or that series of slots from 4 PM to 9 PM on a Tuesday night.

And don't even get me started on Hoarders' cousin Storage Wars.

Guest's picture

My mother in law is 75 years old, lives alone in a big house, and is a hoarder the equal of any we have seen on Hoarders. You can hardly walk around in her house. She's going to lose her home in one to two years, because she has acquired so much mortgage debt, she has no money left for food, utilities, car expenses or insurance.

We tell her she is a hoarder, but she doesn't process the information, and changes the subject.

My wife has hoarder tendencies, but I counter this with minimalist tendencies, so we end up with a nice balance.

Tara Struyk's picture

Great article. I agree that what we own reflects who we are. Maybe the road to more balanced consumerism is to choose possessions that reflect our priorities?

Guest's picture

Excellent. Unfortunately hoarders will never understand real freedom.

Guest's picture

i'm addicted to these shows....and it always makes me feel like 'spring cleaning' every time i watch it. i make sure to donate, give to friends, or yard sale my unwanted's regularly. and i don't think i will ever own a cat.

Guest's picture

Hoarders helps motivate me to keep cleaning also because I have hoarder-ish tendencies. It has also made me notice that my 11 year old sister is an extreme hoarder and I have been trying to encourage my mom to have her get help now before it becomes a bigger issue. This is a great article to sum up all of what we should be learning from that show, thanks!

Guest's picture

I'm the same as Monica - watching this show always motivates me to give my apt a once-over, either for cleaning or to get rid of junk I just don't need. It's quite upsetting to watch regularly, though!

P.S. One of the captcha words for submitting this comment was "cleanness". Go figure.

Guest's picture

My mother (who is now 81) is a hoarder, and my siblings and I had to grow up in a forest of dirt, mold and useless things that someone else could have used.. She truly does put her "stuff" before her relationships, including her children and grandchildren. Never has she had them (or me) over for a meal or a visit, the hoard keeps people out. It makes me so sad for her and myself. Watching the show lets me know I am not alone, there are other families out there dealing UNSUCCESSFULLY with hoarders. It left me with issues of always having to have a cleanand liveable house and a place for everything. my worst nightmare would be to turn into her!