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The Mental Health Benefits of Tidying Up

tidy closset
Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJanuary 25, 2019

Marie Kondo has sparked a de-cluttering craze with her new Netflix show Tidying Up. And I’ll admit it—I’ve caught the bug. I felt an unexpected sense of excitement recently as I talked with my wife about all the de-cluttering we needed to do, and then I spent a couple hours getting to work on my closet. The results were deeply satisfying, including ample room for my backpack, which previously lived in a corner on the dining room floor.

As a psychologist, I’ve long been interested in how our living space affects our mental health. Why is clutter so distressing? And why are clear surfaces so pleasing, not just aesthetically but emotionally? Better organization seems to have the following benefits on our well-being:

  • It shows that we care for ourselves. Every time I open my recently cleaned closet, it feels like someone just gave me a gift. Even when we’re the ones who did something nice for ourselves, it can give us the feeling that we’re worth taking care of.
  • It offers a sense of satisfaction. Even if your clutter is stuffed in closets and drawers, you know it’s there, and it can feel like a continual accusation of your inadequacy. When we take care of our space, it gives us a feeling of accomplishment, which our brains find tremendously rewarding. So every time you open that previously junky kitchen drawer, for example, you get to pat yourself on the back rather than criticize yourself.
  • It makes cleaning easier. When books and papers are stacked on end tables or the kitchen counters are cluttered, it’s hard to do a satisfactory job of cleaning them. And who knows what’s lurking in those piles and behind the mess?
  • It fosters clear thinking. Clutter fills our visual fields and gives our brains endless stimuli to process. As a result, it’s harder to focus on tasks, as there are more things to draw our attention. In contrast, tidy spaces let our brains relax, increasing our mental space and concentration.
  • It improves efficiency. The more stuff we have and the less it’s organized, the harder it is to find what we need. For example, I have batteries in three or four places and never know where to look for the right size or when I need to buy more (I’ll be organizing them as soon as I finish this post). The time we invest in organization pays off in future savings of time and energy.
  • It decreases frustration. Much of the stress we experience comes from daily hassles—a can opener that won’t work, a missing tape measure, a junk-crammed drawer. We often underestimate the effect that these seemingly small annoyances have on our well-being; for example, something as minor as a misplaced measuring spoon can affect whether we end up in an argument with our partner. Thus, a well-organized home can have wide-reaching effects on our mood, happiness, and even relationships.
  • It can catalyze further change. Making changes in our living space gives us momentum that we can carry into other areas of our life. For example, we might use our newly cleaned off desk to launch that job search we’ve been meaning to do, or use a nicely organized kitchen to start preparing more healthful meals. Let yourself be surprised by where tidying up can take you.

Now, time to organize those batteries ...

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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