Mindy, a mother of three, is an engaged and creative mom. On any given day, there might be paintbrushes soaking in the family’s kitchen sink, social media-inspired sculptures on the counter, board games strewn about on the dining room table, or a child’s artwork fighting for space on the door of the refrigerator. Backpacks, sports jerseys, books, and toys would often be strewn across the floor.
When Mindy visited friends’ homes—with clear countertops, organized desks, and coffee tables with room to rest a cup of coffee—she saw a different way of living, one that appeared freeing to her. But, dismissing these tidy homemakers as being of a different personality, Mindy made very few changes at home.
Mindy admitted that when she was forced to straighten her home—scrambling to clean up before company and begging her kids to do the same—she felt better about the space and the way it made them feel. But when the clutter began to creep into their home again, as eventually it always did, Mindy lacked the confidence to believe that regular clutter-free living was possible for her and for her family.
So they continued to limp along, kicking loose soccer balls, stumbling over cleats, and endlessly moving around piles of junk mail.
What’s the problem with a little mess here and there? she routinely said to herself. Other than a minor pain after stepping on a plastic game piece hidden in the carpet, Mindy’s family had deftly avoided major injuries. So, what was the harm with a little clutter?
If your home is like Mindy’s—cluttered most of the time—you might ask yourself the same question. What’s the harm?
Maybe more than you realize.
What Our Clutter Is Doing to Us
When we look into the research and studies that have been conducted in this area, we notice a troubling trend: the clutter in our home may be having more of a negative impact on our family’s health and well-being than we realize.
Consider these examples:
Ten Ways Clutter Affects Our Health
1. Increased Stress
Researchers at UCLA have discovered a link between high levels of stress hormones and a high density of household objects. In other words, clutter increases stress levels—almost undoubtedly.
Psychology Today reinforced their study, citing eight specific reasons why messy rooms contribute to higher levels of stress in our bodies.
Among their reasons: clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli; clutter signals to our brain that our work is not done; clutter creates feelings of guilt; clutter produces feelings of anxiety; and clutter frustrates us by preventing us from locating what we need quickly.
2. Stress-Induced Physical Symptoms
Clutter is a contributing factor to the level of stress in our lives. And given the fact that the average American home now contains 300,000 items, there is no wonder why the New York Times recently referred to the modern American generation as the most stressed of all time.
All of this stress begins to take its toll, affecting almost every system in our bodies. Stress cues the body to breathe faster, which can aggravate conditions such as asthma and emphysema. It increases blood pressure by causing blood vessels to constrict. Stress increases the likelihood of heartburn and acid reflux. And it can overtax our muscles, causing headaches and body aches.
3. Decreased Ability to Focus
Closely related to the stress mentioned above, Princeton scientists discovered that a cluttered environment limits our ability to focus. Their study reports that a visually disorganized environment has neurological effects similar to what we experience when barraged and overwhelmed by lots of different noises at once.
Did you know that a cluttered kitchen can be a cause of overeating? Brian Wansink of Cornell University and his colleagues conducted a study back in 2016 to better understand how cluttered, chaotic environments—such as messy kitchens—influence snacking behavior. Among their findings, women in a messy kitchen tended to consume twice as many calories from cookies as women in a tidy kitchen.
Brian summarized their findings this way: “The notion that places—such as cluttered offices or disorganized homes—can be modified to help us control our food intake is becoming an important solution.”
5. Unhealthy Habits and Choices
In a similar study published in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Minnesota confirmed the prediction that an orderly environment leads to more desirable, normatively good behaviors, such as being generous to the needy.
We think we’re not being affected by the physical environment around us. But in reality, a cluttered environment negatively influences our habits and behavior more than we realize (or care to admit).
6. Diminished Air Quality and Environment
According to WebMD, clutter increases the risk of asthma and allergies. According to the medically reviewed article, “You may think your house is messy but not dirty. But it’s hard to clean around piles of belongings. Decluttering can prevent pests and reduce dust, mold, and mildew, which may trigger asthma and allergies.”
7. Impaired Learning
According to a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, children in decluttered classrooms perform 13 percent better on tests than children in disorganized classrooms. And what’s true for the classroom is true for the home—for both the adults and the kids.
8. Less Restful Sleep
A cluttered environment can lead to difficulty falling and staying asleep, resulting in a reduced quality of sleep. When our bedrooms are cluttered, according to a study funded by The National Institute of Mental Health and others, we have a harder time falling asleep and experience more sleep disturbances through the night.
9. Lower self-esteem
Clutter often brings negative self-talk and feelings of self-criticism.
According to research conducted by the University of New Mexico, this results in a negative impact on our psychological and subjective well-being.
10. Negatively impacts wellness in all aspects
In this post, How Minimalism Can Help You Find Wellness, I lay out all seven dimensions of human wellness and how clutter (or its opposite) affects each of them. If you’d like to continue this conversation and take an even deeper dive into minimalism and wellness, you can find it there.
Beginning to Live Well
Clutter is so much more than a nuisance. It impacts the health and well-being of our families in a ways we might not even notice.
A decluttered home isn’t just about impressing the neighbors when they come over; it’s about preparing an environment where everyone in our family has the best chance to succeed.
And that positive change is always possible.
If you are ready to take the steps needed in your home to live with less clutter, you can find helpful thoughts in this article: The Simple Guide to a Clutter-Free Home.
Living well is possible for your family. When you start, you begin to enjoy the physical, emotional, and psychological benefits of living with less clutter.
You can do this! We’re all cheering for you. You have so much to gain.