Fear of Not Having Had

The first fully enclosed shopping mall in America, and probably the world, was the Southdale Center in Edina, outside Minneapolis. Built in 1956, it is credited to Austrian immigrant architect Victor Gruen, who wanted to re-create the intimate scale and feel of the traditional Viennese plaza. Ironically, the opposite has happened. In this climate-controlled bubble, Gruen used an aviary, an orchestra, a hanging garden, and artificial trees to entice people and keep them shopping. “More people — for more hours,” he wrote in 1973, “means cash registers ringing more often and for longer periods.” So successful was he in this that today’s malls are bought and sold on the basis of their “Gruen transfer” factor. This is a measure of the seconds or nanoseconds it takes, from the moment of entry, for the mall to slow a shopper’s purposeful gait to the ambling stroll that signifies “scripted disorientation,” for the hunter to become the gatherer, the wolf to become the sheep.

We all do it. It is impossible to imagine, as you wander the halls of the latest gargantuan Westfield or Wal-Mart, that all this stuff — endless supplies of wine thermometers and shower radios, in-car phone sets and TV screens wider than your bed — is necessary, or even genuinely desired. Who could possibly buy it all? And yet, somehow, mysteriously, it gets sold. It’s not population-driven. Most Western populations are barely growing, scarcely replacing themselves without immigration. And yet each week we take home mountains and mountains of stuff. Like the gut flora of some poor, fixed creature, addicted to this bulimic cycle of buying, getting, and getting-rid-of, we extract what we want, or think we might want sometime, and excrete the excess — the packaging, the recycling, the half-digested junk.

Even in the throes of our addiction, however, we are increasingly aware that possession itself can become burdensome. Not-having can be stressful, but having can be more stressful still. The “endowment effect” underpins what happens when the negative effect of loss, or of fear-of-loss, outweighs both the pleasure of having and the negative of not-having-had. Once you’ve climbed the peak, there’s only one way to go. Down.

But that’s not all. As psychologist William James noted back in 1898, “lives based on having are less free than lives based either on doing or on being.” This has been the essential message not just of Christianity, but of many of the world’s major philosophies and religions for millennia. Now much contemporary study is devoted to finding scientific proof, or at least concurrence, for what we are no longer prepared, or able, to take on faith.

Adapted from Blubberland by Elizabeth Farrelly, published by the MIT Press in March. All rights reserved.


  1. Farrelly’s book raises the very important and oft ignored issue of the individual’s role as the consumer of “all this stuff”. However a likely limitation of the argument that we as individuals should just simply “give up stuff” & cease to be the bowerbirds we are was highlighted during a conversation Farrelly had with Wendy Harmer on Radio National here in Oz.

    Harmer, better known as a comedian, made the very telling point that she believed that Farrelly’s clarion cry that we should just go cold turkey would simply not work. What she argued for was a change in our attitude about “stuff” – that we needed to cherish it, value how it was made, and care about what it was made of & by whom.

    Understanding & knowing the world through manipulation of materials and objects and the giving to objects meanings of the sublime are very basic and universal human characteristics. As a maker, I am very concerned with the ethical implications of making more stuff – and with fellow makers we are trying to think through this using the concept of slow making. What Farrelly raises has a harsh relevance to the mass manufactured. Where does the hand-made sit?

  2. I am struck by the irony of readers of this article heading out to buy Farrelly’s book, another item for them to consume.

  3. The psychological need for “retail therapy” is not simply a catch phrase. The “need” for stuff is often brought on as the result of anger or frustration, and I have seen it in action. The items bought are not necessarily useless, and having two or more of something is believed better than one of it. The reaction is as likely in the less well off as the well heeled. Personally, I love the point about treasuring what you have, especially the handmade. That speaks to the discerning eye.
    On the positive side of “needing to have”, think of all the items that later make their way into auctions for charitable causes.

  4. Another attendant irony lies in the fact that so many people are so very overwhelmed by their accumulation of stuff that they 1) hire “organization professionals” to help them deal with it and/or 2) buy more stuff in which to put their stuff. What William Morris referred to as the “education of desire” seems to be a necessary antidote. We must assess our measurements of need vs. want, and base our acquisitions much more firmly on what we actually need.

  5. There is an inordinate amount of evidence for Farrelly’s position in another book, _Affluenza: The All-consuming Epidemic_. Here’s but one little nugget: the storage industry (i.e. U-Haul, U-Store-It, etc.) generates more revenue than the American recording industry. Ironic, given that most are cajoled into shopping for stuff by envying the ”
    baller” lifestyles of those artists who “have it all.”

    I recall walking into a Target one afternoon while living in Arizona and seeing placards hanging from the ceiling featuring merchandise available in the store. Each image was accompanied by “Want it” or “Need it.” But there was no distinguishing between wants and needs. They had become one and same thing.

    If you are interested in how Generation Y is going to respond to being raised in a consumer culture that doesn’t even slow down for unpopular land wars in Asia, then I would suggest checking out Frontline’s _Merchants of Cool_. And, for more on mall design, check out Jennifer Price’s wonderful _Flight Maps_, which includes the essay “Looking for Nature at the Mall,” an intriguing look at The Nature Company.

  6. None of us are immune to the marketing strategies that are in place when we walk through the door of a mall or a supermarket,so we should not blame ourselves for overconsuming. If you are budget conscious, you have to look way in the back of the store, or on the bottom shelves to find the real buys. How about the stores that expel fragrant air to lure you in subliminally? I loathe the mall, even though it is apparent that communities revel in them as I drive up and down isles to find a parking spot in those times I am forced to enter one. As I get older, it is becoming clear that the clue to happiness is to have nothing, not to fear it!

  7. If consuming is such a problem that so many people recognize, why isn’t anyone doing anything to stop it?

    And how did it become such a problem? When did the need for so much “stuff” become so eminent?

    What happened to the old-fashioned ways of making your own clothes and building your own furniture? Why can’t we resort back to these old ways?

    So many questions, but hardly any answers. People voice their concerns, then jump in the car to go to the mall for a Saturday Sale. We’re living in a hypocritical world, which is evident from all the people preaching about the environment, but nobody doing anything about it.
    I, myself, am no different. I recently took a survey to see just how much I consume, and the results shocked me. If everyone in the world consumed as much as I do, we would need 5.8 Earths just to survive.

    So how do we stop? How do I stop? It’s a difficult cycle to break.

  8. The only folks who can stop the cycle, Rachel, are those who recognize the problem, and who begin to make their own changes. If we were simply to develop a list of questions to ask ourselves when we shop (based in part on some of the points Kim Johnson raises), we could actually make a dent: Do I truly need this item? Will it enhance my life in any meaningful way? How long will it last? Where will I keep it? What will become of it when it’s no longer useful? Does its manufacture involve the exploitation of other human beings, or the degradation of the environment? Who benefits from my purchasing this item? Who suffers?

    This is not at all the same thing as a “risk/benefit analysis.” If there is any risk, the item should most likely not be purchased. It’s more of a need/want analysis.

    The education of desire begins, as does philosophy itself, with questions. The answers (plural) are what help us understand our place in the world, and our impact upon it.

  9. I went backpacking for 3 months in nature. It is easy to lose the desire for more stuff when you have to carry it on your back. Even easier when you can clearly see the connection between your body and life and the water you drink coming out of the ground. Why would you ever want to pollute the Earth that is so vital for your survival when you can taste the raw connection you have to it so strongly? Seeing directly that every place is within walking distance shows you with startling clarity that there is no safe place to pollute, destroy, stash the waste.

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