Time Adds Value – But Mostly in Our Minds

The longer you have something, the more valuable it feels. It doesn’t matter why you’ve had it, how much you’ve needed it, or if it’s actually increased in value since the beginning. Time itself makes objects feel like they are worth more than they are, despite the fact that time is also the primary reason most items lose their value.

Sunk Cost

Some objects seem to gain value over time because of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. If an object has been in your house a long time, if you’ve been cleaning it, moving it, and maintaining it for years, it feels like it must be important. After all, that would be a lot of effort and resources to expend on something worthless, right? Because you’ve been waiting for so long for the day when the object finally adds value to your life, the value you imagine it to have grows bigger over time. You keep it because you are hoping to get back in value what you’ve already spent in other resources, even if that hope isn’t based in reality.

Associative Sentimentality

The second way time adds value is through what I call Associative Sentimentality. Because you feel nostalgic for certain periods of time in your life, you ascribe value to any objects you acquired or used during those years. Perhaps it’s a generic t-shirt you wore all the time in college, or a silly present you got from a student while you were working as a teacher abroad. The objects themselves aren’t particularly great and you don’t necessarily like them very much, but because you associate them with that time they feel as valuable as the memories themselves. I should clarify that this is not the same as more traditional sentimental objects, such as the t-shirt from your favorite band you got at the best concert you’ve ever been to, or a gift from your spouse on your first anniversary that meant a lot to you. There’s nothing wrong with keeping sentimental objects, the difference is whether or not the object itself it meaningful, or if it just vaguely reminds you of a meaningful time.

Acquired Tradition

The final and most complex way time adds value is that it turns objects into traditions. Typically traditions are useful because they give us a sense of continuity through time, a feeling that things are right in the world, that society is functioning as it ought to be. They connect us to the past, to our families and communities, and they keep us tied to our important values amidst changing times. And sometimes a tradition built around an object can do the same. For example when my family is celebrating someone’s birthday, that person eats off a bright red plate that says “You Are Special Today”. The plate goes on top of the stack of plates for the buffet line, which means the birthday person also goes first in line. It’s a great tradition that means a lot to us, so much so that nearly everyone in the family owns at least one of these red plates, just in case they’re the one hosting the birthday dinner.

But traditions can also keep us stuck in old and outdated patterns, clinging to things that no longer matter and looking for meaning where there is only habit. This is often the case for objects that have turned into tradition. Does the painting above the fireplace feel important because you’ve loved it since your childhood, or merely because you’ve been seeing it since you were a child? Is the clock actually important to your family, or just exceedingly familiar? Even ordinary objects can fall into this category, like the pen cup that’s been on your desk for years or the lamp you keep on your bedside table. These may have only entered your house by chance, but over the years they start to feel inherently important.

Your Mission

Here are three questions to ask to help determine if an object is truly valuable, or if it’s falling into one of the above categories:

1) If this object disappeared tomorrow, would I make an effort to replace it immediately?

2) Do I love this specific object, or just the thing it reminds me of? Are there other, better objects that I own that already remind me of that thing?

3) If I moved into a new home and the object couldn’t go where it normally goes (above the fireplace, on my desk, etc), is it worth putting somewhere else? Where? Would I ever consider moving it there now (in my current home)?