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by Renée Bacher
Updated October 3, 2022
Excessive clutter in your home got you down? You’re not imagining it, and you’re not alone.
According to a June 2016 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “When clutter becomes excessive, it can threaten to physically and psychologically entrap a person in dysfunctional home environments which contribute to personal distress and feelings of displacement and alienation."
The study looked at 1,394 people, most of whom were American women in their mid-50s who had previously come to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, a nonprofit that certifies professional organizers, in St. Louis for advice.
While a sense of what psychologists call “psychological home,” or attachment to one’s residence and belongings, was linked to more psychological well-being, excessive clutter undermined that well-being. The researchers defined excessive as the need to move things in order to accomplish tasks in the home, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed by clutter in the home.
“This may be about self-regulation failure,” said Joseph R. Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and coauthor of the study. Ferrari says people today have been sold a bill of goods with the notion that they have to have the latest of everything, and in the end many of us end up with more things than we can use, which is stressful and can get in our way. “Younger adults who don’t have the money are spending thousands of dollars on stuff they don’t need,” Ferrari added. “You want to keep relationships, not relics.”
A Cornell University study in February 2016 found a cluttered, messy kitchen might even cause us to over eat indulgent treats and gain weight. As for the rest of the home, clutter can generally make you feel immobilized and stuck.
“Start by living a little more minimal,” Ferrari says. “Don’t collect as much as you always do. Ask yourself [if] you really need to have it. No one said you can’t have something sentimental, but do you need six of those?”
• “The dark side of home: Assessing possession ‘clutter’ on subjective well-being,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, June 2016. Read the full study.
• “Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments,” Environment and Behavior, February 2016. In this study, 98 participants with a mean age of 19.4 were randomly assigned to either an organized, standard-looking kitchen in a laboratory or a chaotic, disorganized one. They did writing tasks and then were given bowls of cookies, crackers and baby carrots and asked to eat and rate each type of food. The researchers found that a chaotic environment can make people more vulnerable to making unhealthy food choices, although a person’s mindset can buffer against it. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)