Decluttering can be a cathartic activity when done right. But research reveals the negative effects of clutter includes stress and poorer mental wellbeing. The findings might surprise you.
Negative effects of clutter
People who feel overwhelmed when they see clutter or start tidying up aren’t alone. The stress is caused by the unruly mess itself.
Professor Joseph Ferrari has extensively researched what causes clutter and how it affects us. He explains that “clutter is an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces.”
Prof Ferrari led a research team that studied the effect of clutter on the lives of college students, young adults in their 20’s and 30’s, and older adults (mainly in their 50’s).
Various questionnaires measured the participants’ tendency to procrastinate. They also looked at how affected they are by clutter in their home.
The study’s findings revealed that the more clutter there was, the higher the likelihood to procrastinate. Furthermore, stress levels increased when faced with clutter as we grow older.
Look under the clutter for the cause
Published in the Journal of Current Psychology, this adds to a growing body of research that clutter can be stressful.
Prof Ferrari suggests the problem is linked with “decisional procrastination”. This can look like someone delaying decisions when they’re faced with choices because they’re scared of making the wrong one.
The negative effects of clutter can lead to more things piling up. Experts explain this is due to an emotional attachment to our belongings. And we can’t bring ourselves to throw something away in case we regret it.
Clutter can cause a physical response of the hormonal levels of cortisol to increase. Cortisol is released when people are stressed.
How to minimise the negative effects of clutter
Dr Darby Saxbe, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Southern California, found interesting results in a follow-up study. She discovered stress levels were lower in the evening. Also, fewer people were bothered by clutter.
“Clutter is in the eye of the beholder,” Dr Saxbe explains. “The people who talked about it were the ones who had the cortisol response.”
Prof Ferrari advises people who are affected by clutter should have someone to help them declutter.
“If you’re going to declutter, don’t touch the item. Don’t pick it up,” he said. “Have somebody else hold the pair of black pants and say, ‘Do you need this?’ Once you touch the item, you are less likely to get rid of it.”
One other way to manage clutter is to actively buy fewer items. “We have taken our wants and been told they are needs,” he said.
And Dr Saxbe agreed with this approach to deal with the negative effects of clutter. “Once it’s in the house, it’s really hard to deal with. You get attached to the things you own,” she said.