Health and Home: A Painful Parallel

By Melissa Stefanec

In an age where Marie Kondo is a household name, the state of our homes has become a very public topic. So, I was not surprised when I recently heard a colleague and fellow mom say the following: “It’s like my self-worth is tied to how high the clothes piles are in our laundry baskets.”

Kondo’s series is a reality television show where she works with families to clear their homes and lives of unnecessary clutter. Although the show has been met with differing sentiments, the concept of decluttering to improve mental health is documented in psychological studies.

The ScienceProfessionals have conducted a number of studies about this correlation, but here is one. According to a 2016 study conducted by the University of New Mexico’s Catherine Roster and colleagues, clutter and mess can compromise an individual’s perception of home and ultimately feelings of satisfaction with life. If you think a clean home isn’t important, the study found the following outcomes of living in an overly cluttered home: low subjective well-being; unhealthier eating; poorer mental health; less efficient mental processing; and less efficient thinking.

The Sentiment — So, back to my colleague. There are a lot of people out there who might think her statement was sad, crazy, relatable or a little bit of all of these things. However, when you start digging into the science behind it, you realize it was about as honest and rational of statement as one hears nowadays. The self-worth part may seem like an overstatement, but it’s actually spot-on.

I think most of us would agree our state of well-being, diet, body image, strategic thinking and problem-solving capacity are all very important to our mental health. If mess is having a negative impact on all of those things, how can you have a positive image of yourself? All of a sudden, tying your self-worth to the cleanliness and order of your home doesn’t sound so silly; it sounds down-right grounded. Those overflowing baskets of laundry are more than just physical clutter. They are mental clutter that affects many aspects of our lives.

The Kid FactorMost children are born slobs. A combination of short attention spans, a lack of fine motor skills and allegiance to all things fun and chaotic makes kids fully optimized mess-creators. The irony in this amazing ability is kids crave order and structure. In my experiences, my kids are happier and more content when their bedrooms, surroundings and lives are kept in order. Sure, they need to make messes and immerse themselves in play, but at the end of the day they need to see order restored to their world.

The Catch-22Even if we, as parents, recognize the benefits of maintaining a clean and organized home, we might not have the means to get there. We want to clear our homes to clear our minds, but by the time we do all of things that need doing each day, we often find ourselves depleted. Thus, that basket of laundry takes on an entirely new form. It becomes a very real reminder of our failures. It starts closing in on our happiness. It’s not pretty, but for many of us, it’s reality.

Baby Steps Most of us don’t have enough free time to maintain sparkling homes. It’s not realistic, and we shouldn’t aspire to it. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t do better by ourselves and our children. Here’s a quick and un-dirty list of ways to stay ahead of the mess:

• Require your children to pick up after themselves by giving them specific direction and possible consequences

• Dedicate two hours once a week to decluttering your home

• Take 15 minutes at the end of each day to pick up your house

• Give yourself one small project each week to declutter it (think linen closet or vanity drawer)

• Donate or sell books and toys as soon as your children outgrow them

• If you didn’t wear it this season, donate it

• If you have a significant other, clearly outline each of your responsibilities for the week (i.e., divide and conquer)

• Clean up as you go; don’t let mess accumulate until it becomes intimidating

• Bring less stuff into your home

• Demand your extended family bring less stuff into your home

• Make a small and reasonable chore list for your kids and reward their efforts

• Put a box or bin out of sight and try to put an item into it each day (e.g., clothing, toys, trinkets, books). If you don’t miss those items within a couple of months, donate the items in the bin

• Remember, even those who seem to be immune to mess can reap the benefits of a tidier home

The clutter in our lives is a monster to our mental health. It’s time to take the teeth and horns off that laundry basket lurking in a dark corner. It can only have power if it’s there. Our self-worth and sanity might just be on the line.