The Psychology of Clean: How a Tidy Home Can Help You Be Your Best Self

We won’t mention names, but some of us have lost our best self and become a little less than cleanly through this pandemic. Our homes are no longer the squeaky-clean, pristine palaces they once were. Gone are our sparkly counters and dust-free floors. Now, there are toys scattered everywhere, dirty laundry piling up in the corner, and spaghetti sauce-stained dishes overflowing in the sink. It’s almost like we’ve given up (and some days, we have). 

You could easily let the mess roll over for another day (no one’s coming over, after all) but that won’t do your psyche any favours, because the mess can actually mess with your mind.

Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui author Karen Kingston says that clutter “presents an obstacle to the flow of energy and has an unpleasant, sticky, unclean feel to it.” So, it’s important for your home to have a good flow of energy, so it doesn’t collapse into chaos and drive you crazy. 

A 2010 study analyzed the way 60 people described their homes. Women who described their homes as cluttered or “unfinished” were more likely to be depressed or tired than women who described their homes with peaceful adjectives like “restful” and “restorative.” The researchers from this same study also found that women with cluttered homes had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

And it’s true—people who enjoy cleaning are generally happier and less stressed than those who don’t. They are also more empathetic, productive, focused, and relaxed (if we may say so ourselves).

The brain interprets tidying up as a reward, which triggers an increase of the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, also known as the brain’s “pleasure chemical.” 

This could explain why so many of us are obsessed with cleaning and consuming organization porn (which, unlike the name, is nothing dirty…pun intended). For example, The Home Edit, Marie Kondo, or YouTube videos from yours truly. 

And speaking of, Marie Kondo said that “tidying up can change your life.” And we don’t disagree. Here’s how a clean home can help you be your best self, mentally and physically.

Mental Health

When old junk clutters your living space, it’s easy to feel like you’re drowning in stuff. (Why do I still have a pile of newspapers from the ‘90s?) Looking at all that crap makes us feel overwhelmed by the daunting organizational task that lies ahead. Where to even begin? 

We all have a lot on our plates (not just old dinner) and living in clutter certainly doesn’t help. In fact, clutter has a negative impact on our mental health because it over stimulates our senses and causes us to feel tension and uncertainty. (To us, “mess” = “unfinished business.”)  

But let me tell you: stress cleaning works. Anxious feelings can actually push us to clean better because repetitive behaviours, like cleaning, aid in times of stress. Cleaning and decluttering, even if only for 10 minutes a day, can help minimize anxiety.

Back in 2014, a study in the Mindfulness journal found that participants who “mindfully” washed dishes reported feeling 27% less nervousness, and 25% more mentally inspired. 

Why? It’s important to feel like we have some semblance of control of our environment to help calm our minds, and cleaning can act as a meditation of sorts. (Who else finds mopping the kitchen floor therapeutic?) Feeling in control can drastically improve our moods and help us feel a sense of satisfaction. 

When you’re in a space with minimal mess, you will feel more grounded.

Physical Health

Having a messy home has harmful effects on physical health, too. Clutter makes it harder to fall asleep, and can even make us more likely to reach for junk food. Check out this study that found those with a “chaotic kitchen” ate twice as many cookies.

People with clean houses are physically healthier than people with messy houses. Keeping a clean home can help reduce allergies (bye-bye dust) and kill bacteria before it attacks our immune systems.

And think about it—cleaning can pass as exercise. (Who needs the gym when you have storage boxes to lift?) You best believe you can burn up to 102 calories from an hour of light cleaning, or up to 204 calories from more vigorous cleaning, like scrubbing the tub. And this “exercise” releases endorphins to improve your mental state, too! 

So, crossing cleaning off your mile-long checklist can in fact help you become your best self, mentally and physically. You’ll feel capable of completing your goals, thus improving your self-esteem, and feeling like you can master any challenge that comes your way.

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Melissa Maker is an entrepreneur, cleaning expert, founder of Toronto’s most popular boutique cleaning service, and star of the Clean My Space channel on YouTube (but she still hates to clean!). Every week, Melissa delivers new videos dishing expert advice on cleaning products, tools, DIY substitutes, and practical, timesaving solutions to everyday problems. Melissa has appeared on the Today Show, and has been featured in InStyle, Real Simple, and Better Homes and Gardens.