Research is finding that clutter is more than just pile of mail unopened, laundry unfolded, or “precious” trinkets gathering dust on shelves around the house. While these elements of clutter may be just a sign of things “to do” in a busy life, the collection of “stuff” can have a psychological impact that can wear down emotional resilience.
Now research is showing that clutter can induce a physiological response, including increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Another important finding is that the person in the home who takes responsibility for more “chores,” like clearing up living spaces, tends to have this raised level of cortisol. In many cases, that’s women because they generally assume more responsibility for children, cleaning and overall upkeep of the home. However, men who assume more household responsibilities also show higher levels of cortisol.
Research has found that clutter is related to procrastination, which can affect stress levels because of the hovering worries of many things still “to do.”
Procrastination is closely tied to clutter because sorting through and tossing items is a task that many people find unpleasant and avoid. It takes time to file away important papers or sort through a dining room table buried under books.
“Clutter is an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces,” said Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, who studies the causes of clutter and its impact on emotional well-being.
A cluttered home can be a stressful home, according to the research.
Ferrari was part of a research team that questioned adults about clutter and life satisfaction. Participants were asked questions that related to procrastination.
Researchers asked volunteers to respond to statements related to the tendency to procrastinate, such as, “I pay bills on time.”
The research team also sought information on the psychological impact of clutter, asking for responses to statements like, “The clutter in my home upsets me” or “I have to move things in order to accomplish tasks in my home.”
The results of the study, published in the journal Current Psychology, found a substantial link between procrastination and clutter problems in all the age groups. Frustration with clutter tended to increase with age. Among older adults, clutter problems were also associated with life dissatisfaction.
While there have been differing responses to clutter based on traditional gender roles, Darby Saxbe, an assistant psychology professor at University of Southern California, found that having too much “stuff” piled up at home increases the stress hormone cortisol based on who has more sense of responsibility for upkeep of the house, not on gender.
In a 2010 study Saxbe found that the way a person describes their home, not necessarily the actual amount of clutter, has an effect on the level of the stress hormone cortisol.
Saxbe used linguistic software to analyze the words used to describe the home to determine whether it felt stressful or restorative. Women who used words that showed they felt their home was stressful due to clutter or because the house needed work had higher cortisol levels throughout the day. Saxbe deduced that some of the stress is likely tied to the tendency of women to take on more housework and family responsibilities even after working outside the home all day,
Saxbe told the New York Times those who weren’t feeling cluttered, which included most of the men in the study, had cortisol levels that tended to drop during the day. However when it comes to cortisol levels, the study found that men who did more housework in the evening were as likely to have raised levels of the stress hormone at the end of the day as women.
In a follow-up study, Saxbe found people have differing responses to what constitutes clutter. Women tended to be more bothered by unfinished projects
and generally did not have a drop in cortisol levels in the evening, which is often considered a time of recovery from the stress of the workday.
“The people who talked about or complained about the clutter were the ones who had the cortisol response,” said Saxbe. “Clutter is in the eye of the beholder.”
Lucchesi, Emilie Le Beau, “The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter,” New York Times, Jan. 3, 2019
Ferrari Joseph, R. and Roster, Catherine A., “Delaying Disposing: Examining the Relationship between Procrastination and Clutter across Generations,” Current Psychology, June 2018
Saxbe, D.E., “No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate with Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, January 2010.