Why We Collect

An elderly man examines a brand through a magnifying glass.

No matter which items collectors choose to gather and save, the pastime offers many benefits.

These days, collecting is a pleasurable pastime. But in the past, it served vastly different purposes. Today’s hobby — which can span anything from shoes to stamps — might actually be a former survival strategy. Our ancient ancestors used these strategies in order to successfully hunt and gather food in the wild.

Todd Doyle, PhD, clinical psychologist and associate professor at Loyola University Medical Center, says those with a collection of tools and weapons might have been better able to protect themselves and their offspring from danger.

Over the years, humans’ collecting needs and habits have changed. Doyle says that during the Great Depression, for example, people in the U.S. saved all sorts of items, even fabric or paper and strings from packages due to scarcity.

In a sign of our times, the hobby of collecting today serves a different purpose. “Collecting, whether it’s baseball cards, designer sneakers, stamps, or coins, can help to reduce the mental stress and physical fatigue of everyday living,” Doyle says.

No matter which items collectors choose to gather and save, the pastime offers many rewards. Here’s a look at 10 ways collecting has clear benefits for those who partake.


Because humans are social beings, collecting gives them the opportunity for connection — to get together with people who share their hobby.

“Collecting gives people a sense of belonging to a community of people with the same interests,” says Jocelyn McDonnell, a licensed clinical professional counselor with The Family Institute at Northwestern University. “They might participate in an online forum about the collectible, go to antique shops, attend an auction, or walk the aisles of a show for their collectible,” she says.

That’s the case with McDonnell’s grandfather, 90-year-old Jim McDonnell, who started collecting stamps when he was about 10 years old. Although health issues prevent the Oakbrook Terrace resident from driving himself, he catches rides to three different philatelists clubs that have been meeting for many years.

Art/craft appreciation

Jim, a retired manufacturer representative whose wife passed away several years ago, says some people choose to collect stamps because of their artistic design; others may like ones that depict a specific characteristic, such as flowers. Jim collects stamps from each of the 50 United States and a number of foreign countries.

Purpose and accomplishment

Jim’s stamps motivate him through the days. “I like organizing the stamps and completing sets of them,” he says. His collection once included as many as 40,000 stamps, but he has sold many at auction. He currently has about 8,000 stamps, with some duplicates to trade with other collectors.

“It can give a person a sense of purpose and accomplishment,” Jocelyn McDonnell says. “There is the excitement of the search or the quest when they are pursuing a unique object for their collection and the satisfaction of finding it.”


Collecting helps people feel like themselves and garner recognition. “Collecting gives people a sense of identity,” Doyle says. “It can also set a person apart from their peers, allowing them to be recognized or admired by other collectors.”


And some people turn to collecting because it gives them a sense of calm in what can feel like an otherwise chaotic world. “People sometimes feel they have so little control over many things in their lives. Collecting gives them a sense of control and the feeling of bringing order to at least one aspect,” Doyle says.

Joy and nostalgia

Doyle says when he sees caregivers of a family member with dementia who are experiencing burnout, he asks them what they used to collect that sparked happiness for them and suggests they pick up their hobby again. “It allows people to immerse themselves in the collecting, which will be calming and relaxing,” he says.

McDonnell says a sense of nostalgia inspires some collectors. “Some people are inspired to collect objects that connect them back to their childhood,” she says. “As we grow older we forget our sense of play, so they collect objects that remind them of their childhood and bring back a sense of fun and enjoyment.”


Sometimes the beginning of a collection happens by chance. Cliff Ireland, DO, started a collection that is relevant to his profession as an internist at Orchard Medical Group in Skokie. Back in 2008 he and his wife were browsing in an antique shop while visiting their daughter at college when he spotted a couple of vintage medicine bottles. “When I looked at them more closely, I was even more intrigued because the ingredients in them wouldn’t pass muster with the [Food and Drug Administration] today,” he says.


Ireland’s collection of vintage medicine bottles has now grown to 30 bottles, with a few donated by his patients. And each bottle contains a piece of medicine’s modern history. A bottle of syrup to treat coughs contains 17% alcohol combined with one other ingredient: toxic chloroform. A bottle of liniment has ingredients similar to those in the pain reliever Bengay, but also contains turpentine. Another, a ploy to bypass the restrictions of the prohibition era, has a high alcohol content. “It’s 36-proof,” Ireland says. “You could get a prescription for this once a month from your doctor. If you spread out your drinks, maybe you could make it last the whole month.” The bottle remains one-third full.


Meanwhile, Jim McDonnell’s stamps from the country of Ireland hold a special place for him because they connect him his Irish heritage. A young woman from Ireland gave him two of his prize stamps, featuring her great-grandfather, James Connelly, who helped lead the 1916 Easter Rising. “She gave me two old stamps with pictures of him on them,” Jim says. He adds that during the short-lived rebellion to free Ireland from Great Britain, “Connelly was captured and shot by a firing squad. He is considered a hero.”


Ireland keeps his favorite medicine bottles on a shelf in his office. “The collection is amusing for me and my patients. It’s a little quirk that gives me something extra to do with my life,” he says. Yet, Ireland says the collection goes deeper than that. It’s also a learning experience that casts a light on his chosen profession. “It makes you realize how much medicine has advanced,” he says.

Keep collecting in check

While collecting contributes in myriad ways to a person’s well-being, the hobby can occasionally become overwhelming.

“If the person stops finding passion or joy in collecting because it becomes a task or an obligation, it can create stress and anxiety and no longer be a healthy hobby,” McDonnell says. “Sometimes a collection can become so important that it becomes one’s life to the exclusion of other important things, like relationships, finances, work, and obligations and responsibilities.”

Therapists can help collectors re-evaluate their hobby and regain the pleasures that they originally experienced. Which, of course, brings us back to today’s main purpose of collecting.