We’re living in a time when many of us feel overloaded with stress. Yet many of us don’t realize how our personal habits may be contributing to our angst and anxiety.
For one thing, clutter and messiness can cause distress, which may be part of the reason why the Marie Kondo tidying method and minimalism trends dominate the headlines in wellness news more and more. After all, decluttering (the process of putting the miscellaneous physical things around you away where they belong) not only makes it easier to find what you’re looking for, it can also improve your mood and state of mind in myriad ways.
“It gives people a renewed sense of control over their environment,” explains Catherine Roster, PhD, a professor of management at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who has studied the effect clutter has on our psychological well-being. “When people go through the process of decluttering, they feel a sense of freedom and liberation. It’s a reclaiming of a sense of mastery and control. They feel more competent and efficient.”
Why Does Clutter Affect Our Emotional Well-Being?
The perks that come with decluttering the physical space around you aren’t surprising given that exposure to cluttered, disorganized environments can compromise your attention, concentration, and focus — and even drain your cognitive resources, according to research on the results from fMRI scans. Moreover, living in a cluttered space is associated with self-reports of reduced productivity and more chronic procrastination, according to a study published in 2017 in Current Psychology.
“Clutter reflects an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces,” explains the study’s lead author, Joseph Ferrari, PhD, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago who studies the causes of clutter and its effects on emotional well-being (the paper is coauthored by Dr. Roster). “Clutter is often the result of an over-attachment to our personal items, which makes it difficult to part with them. It isn’t abundance that’s the problem as much as attachment to abundance.”
Notably, procrastination and clutter can be a two-way street. A study published in January 2019 in Environment and Behavior (also coauthored by Ferrari and Roster) found that indecision and procrastination at work are associated with increased office clutter.
In a paper published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2016 (also by Ferrari and Roster), survey responses from adults in the United States and Canada revealed that clutter can have a negative effect on subjective well-being and happiness. Though “home” is typically considered a safe and secure place, clutter compromises some of that security, according to the survey responses.
“When there’s lots of clutter, you lose control over your physical environment, which is very defeating and can bring on stress, depression, or anxiety,” Roster says.
Indeed, in a 2010 experiment for which researchers examined how family members talked about their living environments in the Los Angeles area, women who described their homes as being more cluttered had increased cortisol levels and greater depressed mood throughout the day compared with women who described their homes as more restful and restorative.
Clutter can also be a safety hazard if there are items or wires on the floor that someone can trip over, or a health hazard if your piles of stuff have become magnets for dust or bugs. In addition, clutter can become a source of tension or friction between people in the same household — especially if they have different ideas about what’s acceptable when it comes to tidiness.
It can take a toll on your social life, too, if it gets to the point of embarrassment where you won’t have people over, Roster says.
Finally, there’s even some evidence that over time being in a cluttered space could affect your weight: A study published in January 2016 in the journal Environment and Behavior found that spending time in a chaotic, messy kitchen can contribute to an out-of-control mindset, and people in that type of kitchen chose higher-calorie snacks than people in a neater kitchen.
What Amount of Decluttering Helps Anxiety and Well-Being? It’s Different for All of Us?
If clutter contributes to stress, can decluttering and organizing the environment around you relieve that stress and improve your sense of well-being? Yes, but know that we all differ when it comes to what’s an acceptable amount of clutter.
“Clutter is ‘in the eye of the beholder’ in the sense that some clutter might perturb some people and be totally fine for others,” explains Darby Saxbe, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Center for the Changing Family at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her research focuses on how our family and home environments affect our bodies and our health, and she worked on the 2010 study that looked at the relationship between cortisol levels and the extent to which women described their homes as “cluttered.”
According to Roster: “Clutter is a spectrum — some people with extreme amounts of clutter may think they don’t have a problem with it at all, while others can be quite distressed by it when there really isn’t much there.”
No matter what you physically count as “clutter,” whatever is there is a constant visual reminder of things that need to be done, Dr. Saxbe explains. “Decluttering allows you to cross things off the to-do list, which gives you a sense of accomplishment. Removing clutter also takes away visual interruptions. It’s an easy way to cleanse the palate and have a fresh start.”
Paring down and getting organized also promotes greater productivity, a sense of order, and feelings of self-efficacy, as well as improving your mood. Looked at another way, tidying up, putting things away, and getting rid of piles of unnecessary stuff is a way of “managing symbolic pollution,” researchers concluded in an analysis published in 2014 in the Journal of Consumer Research.
When Decluttering Is Self-Care and When It Isn’t?
Of course, you can take anything to an extreme level, so if decluttering becomes an obsession or you become super strict about having everything in a specific place, you can go overboard. As Saxbe says, “If decluttering is keeping you from turning your attention to other things in your life, that’s not helpful or adaptive.”
In other words, it’s important to find what works for you in this realm and be flexible enough to relinquish the reins of control when appropriate (whether that’s over a weekend or special occasion or in certain places in your home or office). But it’s worth the effort to find your personal sweet spot, because in the right amount, decluttering can be good for your mental and emotional well-being in many ways.
And in that respect, decluttering can certainly be a form of self-care. (Remember: self-care is anything that promotes your health and well-being and that you simultaneously enjoy doing.)
There’s still more work to be done in the field of positive psychology to better define the potential benefits of decluttering, Roster says, adding that: “It’s a form of self-care, just as not doing it is a form of diminishing the self.”