I work from my living room most days of the week. Often, when I’m stuck on a story and feel like I’ve been staring at a blank page for hours, I’ll get up and wash some dishes. There’s no conscious thought process to this. I just stand up, walk to the sink, run my hands under the water, and begin to clean. I don’t return to my desk until I’ve gotten to the bottom of the pile.
I used to tsk-tsk myself for this mindless habit. You’re such a procrastinator! You’re using housework as an excuse to not concentrate on your real work. Why are you so scatterbrained?
But over time, I began to notice a pattern. After I’d spent about 15 or 20 minutes tidying up some part of my home—neatly folding and putting away the pile of clothes that had accumulated on my bedroom floor, wiping down the kitchen table with a wet cloth until it was spotless, carefully placing each polished dish back in its place in the cupboard—I’d return to my desk feeling different. I had an already-started momentum. Suddenly, I’d be unstuck. I’d begin to write.
The most compelling part of Marie Kondo’s new instant-hit Netflix show Tidying Up, in which the Japanese professional organizer and cleanliness guru helps families declutter and transform their homes, isn’t the before and after photos. Kondo’s sprite-like charm and smart home advice certainly make for great television, but what’s really fascinating about these makeover stories is the emotional growth, personal development, and even healing processes experienced by her clients as they clean.
“My family is becoming a family,” says a teary-eyed mother in the show’s third episode as she describes the feeling of seeing her two kids successfully folding and storing their clothes by themselves in their room. “My family is growing.”
Why does the process of cleaning give people such an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and progress?
Science suggests this psychological phenomenon is the product of a series of evolutionary, neurological, and socio-historical cues we’ve collectively accumulated and synthesized. On the most basic level, research shows our home environment can impact our ability to process information and get things done. A 2011 study found a messier, more chaotic space can make it harder to concentrate on a specific task because our visual cortex—the part of the brain that processes information from the eyes—can get “overwhelmed by task-irrelevant objects, making it harder to allocate attention and complete tasks efficiently,” Psychology Today reports. (“Stuff” is “noisy,” says Regina Leeds, a professional organizer and author of One Year to an Organized Life.)
Moreover, the way a person views their home can be an accurate predictor of their stress level. A 2009 study, led by psychologist Darby E. Saxbe, found that women who described their homes as being filled with clutter and “unfinished projects” were less able to cope with psychological stress throughout the day, showing higher levels of cortisol and an increasingly depressed mood as the day went on compared to women who described their homes as being more relaxing and nature-filled, and who had lower stress indicators throughout the day.
“Perceiving one’s home as being cluttered or unfinished could directly trigger stress reactions and depressed mood, whereas viewing the home as more restorative might alleviate these negative states,” the researchers wrote in the paper. Another possibility: “Women who see their homes as a source of demands (the need to straighten up clutter or complete unfinished projects) might have more difficulty unwinding effectively from the workday. In other words, feelings about the home might moderate everyday adaptation to the environment.”
When you come home from a long day of work, the last thing you want to see is a visual symbol of the other kinds of work you still have yet to do.
But the stress induced by a messy home goes deeper than just dreading the prospect of housework. On a more subconscious level, humans may have evolved to have a psychological aversion to visually chaotic spaces, says environmental psychologist Dr. Sally Augustin.
“Clutter makes us tense because it makes it harder to review what’s happening in the world around us—we do this continuously, and when it’s more difficult because more items are present, the task becomes more difficult, and we get stressed,” Dr. Augustin tells HelloGiggles. “A clean house has moderate visual complexity, and we are most comfortable in [these] environments.”
Moderate visual complexity refers to the number of colors, patterns, and shapes in a given space, she explains. Think of the interior of homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, or any of the minimalist homes you see all over Instagram.
“Environments in which we had moderate visual complexity were comfortable places for us to be in our early days as a species because it was relatively easy for us to see approaching danger when we were in them, and they remain comfortable sorts of spaces for us to spend time today,” Dr. Augustin explains.
Just as domestic cats still prefer to hang out on raised surfaces due to a leftover instinct to stay safe from wild predators, tidying up might be a strange behavior we’ve adapted from our ancestors’ need to survey their surroundings.
The minimalist movement—which has overtaken everything from interior design to advertisements to Instagram grids—may have also played a role in our impulse to tidy up. Minimalism has its origins in the modernist movement, according to architectural editor and author Will Wiles, who wrote on the subject in an op-ed for The New York Times. And the early modernists, he tells us, “were obsessed with healthful living and influenced by the design of sanitariums.”
“In the flowering of modernism between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second, architects forged a stainless-steel connection between housing and health,” he writes. “Victorian homes were a nightmare to them, a cesspit at any level of society: they were dark and stuffy; they were filled with carpets and hangings and ornate picture frames that harbored dirt and were difficult to clean; their primitive plumbing made it hard to bathe. The early modernists wanted to wash away this squalor with an ocean of shining chrome, tile, and white plaster.”
Modernists saw the home as a vehicle to improve the life of its inhabitant, and a clean, simple, sparsely decorated house was the ideal way to minimize health risks and maximize functionality. Today’s all-consuming consumerist culture (and vastly improved public health system) butts heads with this vision, but Wiles points out that marketers of house products have consciously held onto the idea of the idyllic home environment as a key to self-improvement. Kondo herself leans into this idea in her book: “Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order,” she writes.
“Modernist determinism—the idea that our lives can be perfected by perfecting our environments—lives on in the rhetoric of a thousand marketing departments,” Wiles writes. “Doing something about our surroundings has become a surrogate for therapy.”
That’s not to say it’s necessarily wrong. Social psychologist Dr. Spike W. S. Lee explains to HG that many physical and spatial characteristics carry with them metaphorical associations. Brightness, darkness, coldness, and warmth all carry certain connotations, just as tidiness and messiness do. Dr. Lee’s research has found the experience of cleaning is associated with a sense of what he calls “psychological separation.”
“Physical cleansing involves separating physical entities from the physical self (e.g. removing dirt from one’s hands),” he explains. “This basic procedure of separation may scaffold a more abstract sense of separating psychological entities from the psychological self (e.g. dissociating past behaviors and emotions and experiences from one’s present identity).”
In other words, because cleaning involves getting physical dirt off yourself or your belongings, our minds associate it with a metaphorical meaning: as we cleanse our bodies, we’re also cleansing our minds. As we cleanse our homes, we’re also cleansing our lives.
“We are energetic beings,” professional organizer Leeds says. “Whatever experiences we have while wearing our clothes leave an imprint. When we cull our wardrobes, we are confronted with the memories (good and bad) from the past as well as our mistakes (the uncomfortable shoes that look good but are painful to wear or the dress we splurged on and wore once or never). You are clearing out negative energy. Some may poo-poo ‘energy,’ but everyone has walked into a space and been instantly comfortable or the reverse. That’s the energetic collection of every good or bad experience that has happened within those walls.”
Leeds—who calls her organizational method “Zen Organizing”—says we can actually begin to feel lighter energetically as we discard, tidy, and cleanse our homes. With less clutter, less stuff, and thus less noise, moving forward becomes easier. We can create a sense of momentum and perhaps even inner progress.
“Being willing to release the past through our clothing frees us. Ms. Kondo calls that joy,” Leeds says. “Shedding stuff is akin to shedding pounds we don’t need to carry around. I’d call that freedom.”