Fancy sneakers, baseball cards, comic books – there are many items people love to collect.
A Morning Consult survey from earlier this year suggested that millennials in particular are fans of collecting physical objects, as well as digital collectibles like NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Gen Xers were the second highest percentage of respondents who collect things. The survey also polled Gen Zers and baby boomers.
Of course, hobbyists have been collecting things like coins, stamps and books for generations. But is there something about collecting that might appeal especially to today’s young adults? HuffPost asked mental health experts to break down some of the potential factors.
There’s a sense of nostalgia and connection to childhood
“One of the reasons people collect is for the sake of nostalgia, or connection with something meaningful to them,” says Rachel Thomasian, a licensed therapist and owner of Playa Vista Counseling in Los Angeles. “Whether it’s art or dolls, there can be a connection to items. Often collecting helps people connect to their childhoods or a special time or person in their lives.”
In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us took a renewed interest in things we did as kids. For millennials, this meant tie-dying, doing puzzles and playing video games, among other things.
“A lot of people turned to ways to reconnect with their childhood,” says Jocelyn McDonnell, a licensed clinical professional counsellor and member of the cognitive behavioural therapy team at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “Many millennials collected things as a hobby growing up – like Pokémon cards and sports cards. I think some people have re-looked at these hobbies for the first time during the pandemic.”
Collecting fosters feelings of accomplishment and power
“For some, there is a thrill and sense of accomplishment that comes along with acquiring an entire collection,” Thomasian says. “For us millennials, I can’t help but wonder if growing up with the catchphrase ‘collect them all’ and during a time when we sought to complete a collection of McDonald’s toys has something to do with our tendency to collect.”
She also pointed to the financial challenges millennials face with stagnant wages, rising debt and increased housing and healthcare costs that have become their reality.
“I bet there is a sense of accomplishment that comes from being able to buy and collect things that is deprived of most millennials,” Thomasian says. “Previous generations were able to buy homes more easily and feel pride in that, but when that doesn’t feel as much of an option, people can seek that same feeling from other items.”
McDonnell similarly notes that collecting can offer a feeling of power and achievement.
“Ask someone who’s really into collecting what they’re gaining from it – enjoyment, fun and maybe it’s a status symbol in some ways,” she says. “It’s the idea that ‘Maybe I can pay for this rare card now, but I couldn’t when I was 10.’”
There’s a feeling of hope in building a collection
Collecting can help millennials reconnect with the simpler and in some ways happier times of their youth. But it can also offer a sense of hope and promise for the future.
“Many millennials are weathering the effects of the second recession of their short working lives, which has had a very specific impact on their conceptualization of what paths their lives were supposed to take,” said Jenny Maenpaa, a New York-based psychotherapist.
A lot of millennials entered the workforce in a shaky economy that limited their earning potential, and may have found themselves in a similar position during the pandemic – but with more responsibilities like children and ageing parents. As a result, it makes sense they might turn to something from a more hopeful time.
“For many millennials, who grew up collecting POGS and Beanie Babies, the idea of collecting something tangible is comforting and represents a time when they felt more hope for the future and none of the existential dread that grips many today,” Maenpaa says. “Collecting items also implies that you still believe you will have a home to fill someday with things that matter to you, even if you aren’t in that position today and have no idea how you’re going to get there.”
People are seeking comfort and control
“We all have an instinct to possess. It makes us more comfortable and secure,” says Shirley Mueller, an adjunct associate professor of neurology at Indiana University and the author of Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play.
A sense of security is something many of us have been craving amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. We need tangible rewards and proof that we have some power and agency in our lives.
“So much is out of our control during Covid that the little dopamine hit of collecting another item is especially rewarding and in our control,” says Rachel Kazez, a Chicago-based therapist and the founder of All Along, a resource to help people find therapy and understand mental health.
Indeed, the act of locating and procuring something for a collection can activate the pleasure centre of the brain, so this hobby can provide a feeling of comfort and stability.
“As a therapist I see more people collecting things as a way to comfort or self-soothe,” says Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Monica, California. “Having things they love around them can help them feel more at home, or remind them of happier times. I have even had a few patients collect things as a way to always have ‘home’ with them because they moved a lot as children.”
Between 9/11, the financial crisis and the pandemic, millennials experienced a lot of stress and uncertainty during particularly formative years.
“The trauma and stress millennials have gone through during key times in their life makes them more likely to collect things as a way to self-soothe or comfort themselves,” Morton says.
Collecting can help people connect with others.
“Collecting objects might be for fun, because it is part of an interest or to fit in and be seen to be part of a ‘tribe,’” says Noel McDermott, a London-based psychotherapist. “Consuming is a core activity in our culture and overproduction of things is a feature of our times. Whereas collecting in the past was the preserve of the wealthy and idle few, it is much more widespread now.”
McDermott pointed to the large social media communities and groups of people who follow influencers who focus on particular collections or items. Being “in the know” and up to date with the latest trends can feel good, especially in the age of FOMO.
“I think millennials collect for both a sense of individuality and community,” says Meg Gitlin, a psychotherapist in New York and the voice behind the therapy insight Instagram City Therapist. “This may seem paradoxical but I think both are true. Many collectors are involved in larger groups with the same interests, but there’s also something ‘special’ about claiming ownership over something that’s hard to find and fully understand.”
She also believes that living through the major shift into the digital world and internet age might have something to do with millennials’ interest in collecting items.
“I would imagine that for people like me, collecting is a way to preserve an attachment to meaning in the physical world,” Gitlin says.
It’s a form of self-expression
As Gitlin noted, collecting can be about both communal connection and individual expression.
“Objects are an extension of ourselves,” Mueller says. “What we choose represents us. They define us as people and are a form of self-expression. Collecting in a specific area is the ultimate self-expression.”
Collecting vintage postcards might be a way to show your interest in history, travel and art. What you collect is a reflection of what you prioritise in your discretionary spending. Your interest in collecting could also be about a specific childhood trauma or defining experience.
“For some, it can be filling an emotional void,” says Gina Moffa, a psychotherapist in New York. “For any reason, the key is having an emotional attachment to the items and putting individualised meaning upon them. The key is in knowing and understanding which of these categories one may fall into when looking at the need to collect.”
They might be investing in the future
“Collecting can be a great way to make and keep memories,” said Kathryn Smerling, a New York-based psychotherapist. “However, people are also collecting to resell. It’s also entrepreneurial, not necessarily to hold on to things.”
Indeed, millennials have witnessed the ways collectibles can grow in value over time – including our own childhood toys like American Girl dolls and Beanie Babies. Collecting items can therefore feel like a form of investing.
“Our internet savvy leads us to up the ante on the search and gives us the skills to scour the ins and outs of the internet for the item we are collecting,” Gitlin says. “Additionally, I think our generation has seen how collectors’ items have gone up in value exponentially. We are able to enter the market for ourselves and buy something that could potentially (and likely) triple or quadruple in value.”
And now the investment includes digital collections as well – whether it’s cryptocurrency or NFTs.
“Digitally savvy, millennials as a group are in a unique position right now with collecting,” says Sue Varma, a psychiatrist in New York. “For the most part, millennials are not intimidated by geographic boundaries – in the art world or elsewhere – making their access to collectibles that much larger. In fact, they are leaning more towards the online art viewing and Instagram-only art collections.”
In addition to investing in potential financial growth, she notes that collecting can be a way to invest in yourself and your day-to-day happiness.
“Because of the pandemic, more millennials are spending a lot more time in their homes,” Varma says. “And they are willing to spend on art, sports memorabilia and collectibles to make their homes more welcoming.”