Minimalism – or the idea that our lives should be as uncluttered as possible – is having its time in the sun. People are fed up with working all hours of the week to fill their homes with stuff that, ultimately, doesn’t make them happier. Worse still, all that clutter could be a source of stress. It’s existentially terrifying to realise that you spend all your precious time working, and all you have to show for it is piles of stuff that reduces your quality of life – the opposite of how it should be.
It won’t come as any surprise to many readers there is real scientific evidence that clutter affects us on a psychological level, namely that it reduces our mental and physical wellbeing. Researchers have coined what they call “the clutter effect” – a series of emotional responses to the presence of clutter which have a measurable impact on our health. It seems that just being in a cluttered environment adds stress to our bodies, above that of simple daily living.
Take Catherine Roster from the University of New Mexico. Her research shows that people who live in cluttered homes feel less satisfied with their living environments and ultimately less happy with their lives in general. People identify so closely with their home environments, according to her theory, that it has a material knock-on effects on their wellbeing. How you live is as important as what you do, it seems.
The underlying reason for this might have something to do with the ability of the brain to process information. Cluttered environments are far more demanding than clean and organised ones. They require more of our cognitive resources, and when this happens on a daily basis, it can lead to stress and even burnout. Orderly dwelling conditions eliminate this source of stress, evoking a sense of freedom.
Homemaking is also linked to the idea of “psychological safety.” Psychologists first introduced the term of psychological safety to refer to how people felt towards one another. Being psychologically safe with someone meant feeling at ease in their presence. But since then, the concept has evolved to refer to feeling safe with any external object, including one’s home. People who don’t feel safe in their home – when a home isn’t a place of refuge because of clutter – can experience some of the emotional issues associated with being involved in a dangerous relationship.
So what are the reasons you should look for the best bin hire in your area, hire a skip, and clear out your home?
The link between a messy home and eating is an interesting one. In a study from 2017, researchers found that people who lived in more cluttered environments tended to reach for snack food more often. The link isn’t entirely clear, although the researchers speculated that it might be because people felt more stressed. Stressed people will often reach for calorie-dense foods to lift their moods.
There could also be another reason, though: poor self-control. It could be the case, for instance, that people who don’t have the conscientiousness to tidy their homes also lack the same control over what they eat. It’s a personality trait that underlies both. Others point out that a cluttered house may make people feel as if they have less control over their lives, and therefore, less control over what they put in their mouths.
Worse Mental Health
Although the majority of the literature focuses on the basic stress response of the brain to clutter, more recent research suggests that there may be a slightly different mechanism that produces the adverse effects associated with clutter. Researchers have introduced the term “mental comfort” to describe a state in which people feel at peace with their situation and environment. Similar to stress, mental comfort is the idea that our minds experience comfort in the same way to our bodies when lying on the couch.
Clutter, the argument goes, reduces mental comfort, and this, in turn, helped to improve mental hygiene – the act of keeping the mind free from negative thinking. Research in the workplace, for instance, has found that employees with cleaner desks tend to feel happier on the job and have higher output. The personalisation of desks can be useful to an extent but could run into diminishing returns if too many items are added. The degree to which people can tolerate clutter varies from person to person.
Lynn Hasher from the University of Toronto is a leading proponent of the idea that the clutter in our minds leads to a loss in capacity to think, and could be related to age-related declines in memory. She argues that the more of our mental resources taken up by unnecessary processing leads to a loss in working memory and function. Tasks take longer, and we have to exert more effort to come up with new and useful ideas using whatever resources are left over.
According to psychologists, the act of “streamlining” one’s life – removing unnecessary junk from your home, for instance – improves performance at work, and enhances cognitive ability to process information. Work performance can actually go up, because you’re more likely to remember people’s names and the contents of meetings, rather than it going in one ear and out the other.
Difficulty In Understanding Others
Mess can make it more difficult to interpret the thoughts and feelings of others in the environment. No, that’s not a misstatement: it’s something that’s supported by science.
Work by James Cutting at Cornell University suggests that when people’s visual stimuli are more cluttered, they’re not able to process or understand the feelings of others as well as they can when in a clutter-free environment. This surprising finding suggests that our brains have limited capacity to handle incoming signals, and that clutter seems to “crowd out” information from human subjects in our perception. While in a clean environment, all the processing power of our brains gets directed towards the people we’re talking to, in a cluttered environment, we need more resources to interpret everything else, reducing our social intelligence.