Why Do We Collect Things?

In a world filled with uncertainty, people turned to collecting to help relieve stress, form new relationships, and feel some small sense of control.
Why Do We Collect Things?

We live in interesting times. And although there’s plenty that could be said about them, the events of 2020 (you know what I’m talking about) led to, among many things, renewed interest in collecting things.

In an unforeseeable series of events, people actually began collecting toilet paper. Although this might not follow the regular pattern of collecting, at play here was many of the same drivers as for why people collect things, and have collected things, undoubtedly since the beginning of time.

There was, of course, the perceived value of toilet paper. Imagine a pandemic filled world, living under martial law, with supply chains vastly broken down, and being stuck in your home without the ability to go to the store, without any toilet paper.

There was also the competitive driver that motivated people to fill their houses with stacks of toilet paper. There’s the challenge of getting to the store just as the toilet paper shipment arrives, and being one of the “winners”.

Of course, collecting was not destined to stop there.

Other markets boomed as well during the pandemic – quite notably the trading card market. In a world filled with uncertainty, people turned to collecting to help relieve stress, form new relationships, and feel some small sense of control.

But collecting goes much further than just seeking control. There is something intrinsically human about collecting.

We Are Subjects Living in a World of Objects

People have a really odd relationship with things, if you think about it. After all, here we are, bipedal creatures strutting through the world – masters of our own destinies while the animals run in fear of us and nature either learns to deal with us or we learn to deal with it.

And then there are things. The commonality between people in things lies at the intersection of mortality. Many “things” are mortal, like us. They corrode and wear away. They don’t last forever. However, other things do last forever.

Although human beings are of intrinsic worth, we waste away overtime. Nobody lives forever, no matter how hard they try. And yet, we have sculptures from ancient times that are still in great condition.

Things can be forever, but people cannot be.

Collecting, at its most basic level, is us as subjects trying to cope with the world of objects around us. We are relational beings and yet we are dependent on physical things. We eat food, we wear clothes. We need things. And yet, the things that we need are often disposable.

Collecting is a way for us to set aside items and say “I don’t need this thing. I just want it”.

Oddly, through collecting we actually show gratitude. We acknowledge that there are things in this world worth having for their own sake, not just for utilitarian reasons.

We Collect Things Because We Fear Dying

“To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.” –Socrates

Although items can corrode and disintegrate over time, most items have the potential to outlive us in one way or another. Our own lives are subject to change, to accidents, to illness – things are not. Things are constant. In some small way, in our minds we feel that by collecting things, perhaps we can tie our souls to those things. We can have some small part of that unchanging nature, and that immortality through our collection.

Similarly, many people collect things thanks to nostalgia. The Pokemon craze is evidence enough of this. People now in their late twenties and early thirties grew up with Pokemon. Of course, as they grew up, got jobs and even got married and had kids, these young adults let go of their childhood obsessions and moved on. Now, with more time on their hands, less competition for excess income, they are able to rediscover some of these childhood obsessions.

Connecting with things from our pasts and reliving them today also makes us feel a sense of immortality. Although our circumstances change, there are things that stay constant in our lives. Collecting can help increase that sense of consistency.

Nostalgia Helps with Change

One of the major benefits of collecting is the feeling of nostalgia it gives people. And nostalgia is proven to be a massively positive emotion for us. Although many people will simply discard nostalgia as childish longings for things long past, embracing nostalgia, when not leveraged negatively to compare with our current lives over our past, improves our overall mood and helps us deal with change.

We Collect Things Because We are Social Beings

Lastly, we not only collect things to feel control, to benefit from the psychological state nostalgia puts us in, and to tie ourselves in with something bigger than ourselves – we collect to socialize. Collecting is a great hobby for people who want to make friends. It is an immediate ice breaker, making it easier to form new relationships based on shared interests rather than social class or geographical location.

As people hunt for the next rare find for their collection, they come into contact with other collectors like themselves, attend conventions, gather on forums, and have a chance to feel interconnected in an increasingly disembodied world.

We Collect Things to Make Money

Last but not least, we collect things to make money. Many of us collect things in hopes of making money off those things at a later date. It’s not the primary driver for collectors, but it is frequently there as a motivation.

Ultimately, collecting is an incredibly human thing, and it is something we should feel encouraged to do, and encourage others to do.


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