Magical Thinking and Material Goods

Thai Buddha statue

Magical Thinking and Material Goods

Commodification is a form of sympathetic magic. That is, telling someone that if they buy designer clothes they will be considered as desirable as the celebrities who normally sport the stuff is akin to telling someone that if they put on a wolfskin belt by the light of the moon they’ll turn into a werewolf. I want to draw this out a little bit more, but this time with an eye toward how a similar form magical thinking can arise within the organization, voluntary simplicity, and minimalism movements.

I’ve written before about the the magic of ownership, where I pointed out that possessions can be perceived as performing a sort of sympathetic magic: that is, owning the symbols of a certain lifestyle, social class, profession, or pursuit is thought to somehow bring that lifestyle, class, profession or pursuit into our lives. Possessions can be perceived as acting as a magical or symbolic extension of ourselves, a visible representation to others of parts of our identity that we want to show to the world. Possessions are also “memory-laden objects,” that, through sympathetic magic, bond us to better times, powerful people, or the support of our ancestors.

Advertising has strengthened the magical appeal of possessions. Its message is “This object will grant you powers you didn’t have before you purchased it.” This liquor, this car, this suit, this cologne will attract women. This purse, this lipstick, this dress, this perfume will attract men. This computer will make you smarter. This antibacterial spray will make your children healthier. This music will make you part of the in-crowd. This wolfskin belt will turn you into a wolf.

These messages promote a form of magical thinking. Magical thinking is a form of “causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events,” according to Wikipedia. With regard to advertising, magical thinking occurs when we believe, at some unacknowledged or subconscious level, that buying or owning something causes a desired event — or prevents an undesired event, in the case of such products as antibacterial sprays. Magical thinking is very powerful and can even have psychological merit, as in the case where belief in a placebo leads to an improvement in health.

This is the magic that professional organizers must confront when they’re trying to help people get rid of their clutter. How often have we watched or read a professional organizer intoning something along the lines of “remember, your mother’s teapot is not your mother”? They are fighting the power that the fundamental, often unacknowledged belief in sympathetic magic has over our minds. Sometimes their invocation of logic acts as a successful counterspell to the magic of material goods; sometimes it doesn’t.

In attempting to counteract advertising and consumerism, however, organization, voluntary simplicity, and minimalist efforts often offer a slightly different type of magical thinking. In this magical formula, a possession is not associated with something positive, but with something negative. Often-repeated phrases in the movements include “Clearing space will clear your mind,” or “owning less stuff will mean having more time.”

The phrases are backed up with explanations, of course, such as arguments that possessions are distractions, cost time and money to purchase and maintain. But it is the magical formula “possessions = problems” that many people are likely to internalize, just as others have internalized the message, for example, that “diamonds = love” or “luxury cars = social status.”

“Remember, no matter where you go, there you are”. — Buckaroo Banzai

This originally Confucian concept points out that it doesn’t matter how we may change our material world — by moving ourselves to a new place, by gaining or shedding possessions, by hanging crystals in our windows — ultimately, we are what is in our heads. And if what’s in our head is worried, nervous, stressful, antagonistic, pessimistic, or otherwise unpleasant, it will still be there no matter what physical changes we make to our environment. What needs to be worked on is our Selves.

The great majority of those who write about professional organization, voluntary simplicity, or minimalism know this, and they talk as much about making changes in thinking patterns as they do about making changes in the environment. I expect, however, that this deeper message often gets forgotten or ignored by the people they’re working with. We humans tend to be impatient sorts, and our penchant for magical thinking tends to lead to simplified understandings of complex messages. The formula “possessions = problems” is very simple and easy to adopt. Getting rid of material objects is much easier than changing deeply ingrained patterns of thought.

How many people have frantically jettisoned their belongings in the belief if they can only get their possessions down below some arbitrary number, their lives will get better? How many have prowled restlessly around their houses when they’re feeling tense or stressed out, cleaning and organizing and decluttering as if those assertions of control over their environments will somehow also impose control over their emotions? How many set off on vacations or sabbaticals hoping that a new environment will transform them into a different person? How many have desperately read advice book after advice book, as though the books themselves could somehow conjure up more money, a neater house, or a simpler life for them?

I have to admit, I’ve certainly done a few of these things. I’m as prone to magical thinking as anybody else.

In the best of situations, behavioral changes do lead to psychological changes. Placebos stop the pain, diamonds affirm love, and uncluttering helps a person relax. What is important for us to remember is that in these cases, the effect is not caused by the object or its removal. The effect is caused by the changes in one’s mental state that are triggered as a result of taking, buying, or decluttering that object. The object or action doesn’t cause the effect; it is only correlated with the effect. Object/action > change in mental state > emotional or physical change.

Magical thinking is very powerful and can be used in very beneficial ways. However, on those days that you find that your possessions or open spaces or rituals aren’t changing your life for the better, remember that it’s not the possession, open space, or ritual that does the work. It’s your mode of thinking. The real work of organizing, simplifying, and minimizing must go on inside of your head.

Photo credit: Brunosub

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.
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