The COVID-19 pandemic created an unconventional yet innovative adaptation for millions of people near and far — the challenge of working from home. Proponents and critics each have their opinions on the concept, but for countless people worldwide, this “trend” may be here to stay. German poet and playwright Van Goethe once said, “He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home.” But ponder this — there are 300,000 things in the average American household. I know it’s shocking. And to what degree does this “clutter” have on our peace? Does clutter affect our mental health? I know clutter negatively affects both my productivity and my mood.
DePaul University psychology professor Joseph Ferrari says, “clutter is an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces,” Researchers have shown that a cluttered home often creates stress. As I researched this topic to write this article, the recurrent theme that I found was that researchers who study the effects of clutter on mental health have found people who are subjected to cluttered home environments do tend to have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Persistently elevated cortisol levels can negatively affect our mood, our hormonal balance, and our quality and quantity of sleep, to name a few.
Whether it be your office, bedroom, or kitchen countertops, our ability to both focus and process information is hindered when we are surrounded by excess “stuff.” I found it very interesting when Princeton University neuroscientists compared people’s task performance in two settings: an organized vs. a disorganized environment. These researchers confirmed that physical clutter in our surroundings competes for our attention, resulting in decreased task performance and increased stress. Clutter acts like a blaring television when we are trying to listen to the radio. And remember, clutter is not just physical “stuff.” It is often digital clutter, meaning all the messages we are bombarded with through email, text messages, and social media. It can also be emotional baggage like relationship difficulties, memories of a stressful past, or current anxieties over things out of our control.
As difficult as it may be for various reasons (monetary attachment, sentimentality, procrastination, fear of letting go), ridding ourselves of the clutter in our lives is very liberating and can provide a literal power surge for our brain. And who doesn’t need that? I’ll take a double dose.
To Your Health,
Roster, C. A., Ferrari, J. R., & Jurkat, M. P. (2016). The dark side of home: assessing possession ‘clutter’ on subjective well-being. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 46, 32–41.
Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter. New York Times, January 3, 2019.
Oakman J, et al. BMC Public Health. 2020. Nov 30;20(1):1825.
Clutter Statistics Storage Trends; Statistics Stats, December 21, 2017.