150 Things? Dunbar’s Number for Personal Possessions
A Minimalist in Enemy Territory
Dunbar’s Number, 150, is the theoretical maximum number of people we humans are able to maintain with meaningful social relationships. It is a number that anthropologist Robin Dunbar arrived at by observation of primate grooming habits then extrapolated it for modern humans. There are quite a few historical and anecdotal cases where that number seemed to arise from intuitive or pragmatic reasons, such as the number of people in villages, etc. Dunbar’s Number has been taken up as a business model and as a tool for organizing offices.
Dunbar’s theory is that when there are too many people of importance in our lives, our relationship to them suffers, become unstable, or become superficial and unrewarding. In a recent application of this idea, many people have made adjustments to their social media activities by limiting their Twitter and Facebook following to 150 “friends,” although Dunbar himself has expressed reservations that online relationships meet the touch-based criteria of truly personal ones.
One thing I have not seen, however, is the possible relationship between the maximum number of meaningful relationships and our maximum number of meaningful possessions. Many a decluttering blogger has questioned the true value of the things we keep in boxes in the basement or other storage areas. If those items were truly important, why aren’t we using them or putting them out on display? Or is it that we have too much other stuff we are using instead?
I mean, think about it: it’s no accident that Dave Bruno’s 100 Things is so intriguing and inspired so many people to attempt to live with what seems like a radically limited number of personal possessions. Other living-with-less ideas such as Courtney Carver’s Project 333, where one has just 33 items of clothing for a period of three months, present the same sort of intriguing challenge: Am I made of strong enough stuff to do it?
As a veteran of Project 333 and massive uncluttering and downsizing in nearly every possible aspect of life from possessions to social interactions, I can attest to the mind-blowing revelation that restricting the number of possessions can greatly enhance one’s relationship to them. No longer surrounded by a numbing mass of stuff crammed together and boxed up and half-forgotten, the sheer realness of what remains becomes, well, enough. The stuff is getting utilized and in turn it’s giving me more satisfaction. It also meets Dunbar’s touch-based criteria.
I do not know if 150 is the maximum number of personal possessions we should have, but I do know that a limit of stuff, just like a limit of close people, is a very good thing. Any thoughts?