A cluttered home can be a stressful home, researchers are learning...

If you have to move things around in order to accomplish a task in your home or at your office or you feel overwhelmed by all your “things,” it’s a strong signal that clutter has prevailed. And it might be stressing you out more than you realise.

 

“Clutter is an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces,” said Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago who studies the causes of clutter and its impact on emotional well-being. And a cluttered home, researchers are learning, can be a stressful home.

Dr. Ferrari was part of a research team that questioned three groups of adults about clutter and life satisfaction: college students; young adults in their 20s and 30s; and older adults, most in their 50s.

The study, published in Current Psychology, found a substantial link between procrastination and clutter problems in all the age groups. Frustration with clutter tended to increase with age. Among older adults, clutter problems were also associated with life dissatisfaction.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that clutter can negatively impact mental well-being, particularly among women. Clutter can also induce a physiological response, including increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Darby Saxbe, an assistant psychology professor at University of Southern California and the study’s lead author, said that the women in the study who described their home as being cluttered or needing work began their day stressed and remained stressed. Some of the added stress, she suspects, was tied to women’s tendency to take on housework and extra chores after the workday. In terms of cortisol levels, men who did more housework in the evening were as likely to have raised cortisol levels at the end of the day as women. It’s just that not as many men spent as much time on housework as their wives, she said.

 

Experts are beginning to explore why clutter can elicit such a strong emotional response.

Dr. Saxbe said there has long been a standard representation on how a middle-class home should look and function. A disorderly home fails to live up to such an expectation.

“If you think of the 1950s ideals of the single family home,” Dr. Saxbe said. “The man comes home, kicks up his feet and has a cocktail. The home is a place to come home and unwind. But not if the home is filled with a to-do list and never-ending drudgery.”

Gaining control over the drudgery of decluttering is a task that many inhabitants of cluttered residences struggle to master.

Dr. Ferrari noted that clutter is also often the result of an “over-attachment” to our personal items, which makes it difficult to part with them. For overwhelmed individuals who want to declutter, he recommends a hands-off approach.

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