There is something I call “The Hotel Effect,” which is how I feel when I first enter a nice, blank, generic hotel room: a feeling of total peace and serenity. A kind of “Ah, isn’t that nice?” reaction. Is it because of the Made-in-China polyester bedspread, possibly sporting a spectacularly tacky pattern? No. Is it because of the free-to-take, tiny little bars of soap? No – they invariably dry out my skin. Is it because of the piped-in air, also drying and generally too cold? No, no and no. As I said at my most recent Strong Woman Salon, the reason I exhale and feel so relaxed in a hotel room – any hotel room, even a crappy one – is because none of my stuff is there. I am free of the entanglements of my own possessions. Nothing distracts me, and I’m free to be in the present moment without a myriad of objects, each carrying its own weight and meaning, tugging at my sleeve.
Realtors know this, of course, and that’s why they stage houses in a dream-like, fantasy state, in which there is just the right amount of pretty furniture, but an extreme paucity of stuff. They know this makes people feel inexplicably happy, and makes them want to live in the home, which feels so much lighter than their own.
This got me wondering, if a humble Motel 6 can make me feel relaxed, does the converse hold true? Do I actually feel tense in my own home?
Unfortunately, a number of studies point to an answer of “yes.” UCLA researchers went into the homes of middle-class families in Los Angeles to explore how people actually live; particularly how they engage and interact with their space, their meals, their belongings, and each other. The researchers found that mothers’ stress hormones became elevated when they dealt with their belongings.
Other studies have shown that having a cluttered environment can have negative neurological effects. Researchers at Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute asked people to complete a task on a visually cluttered computer screen, whereas other people completed the same task on a clean computer screen – where the task was the only salient thing in their visual field. They found that subjects with the cluttered screen performed worse at the task, and experienced higher stress. Put simply, a cluttered environment restricts your ability to focus on the task at hand.
These findings make intuitive sense – this is why sometimes it’s necessary to clean up our desk before tackling a new project that requires mental acuity and focus. What’s more surprising, though, is that some studies suggest the effects of clutter on our mind and behavior might be more far-reaching. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota asked Dutch students to fill out a questionnaire in an orderly room, while other subjects performed the same task in a messy room. At the end of the session, all participants were asked if they would like to make a charitable contribution to a worthy cause. While 82% of the participants from the orderly room gave a donation, only 47% of the messy room people did.
Furthermore, as subjects were leaving, they were offered a treat – either an apple or a piece of candy. Subjects from the orderly room were three times as likely to choose the apple.
The researchers concluded simply that orderly environments promote “desirable, normative” behaviors. But I suspect there might be more to it than that. I think that messy environments create a kind of perceptual fatigue that makes it harder to make decisions – not just “good” decisions, but any decisions.
When perceiving a cluttered environment, something called “crowding” occurs – where certain objects take on the attributes of neighboring objects. So subliminally, our minds may be spending quite a bit of energy just trying to decide what’s what.
Human beings also suffer from something called “decision fatigue.” After a certain amount of time spent making decisions, we get stressed and tired, and basically can’t make decisions anymore. When suffering from decision fatigue, we generally make whatever decision feels easiest. It strikes me that subliminally, a cluttered environment presents us with many little micro-questions (“What’s that? Do I need to pay attention to it?”) which subsequently make it more challenging for us to make actual, conscious decisions – such as whether a charity is worthy, or what the best snack choice is. Ultimately, when faced with decision fatigue, it’s always easier for us to say “No,” or in the case of candy, “Oh, whatever.”
The bottom line is, a cluttered environment is more psychologically stressful than a clean, orderly environment. So from a wellness perspective, it behooves us to spend a certain amount of time per week or per day managing our stuff – the same way we spend time going to the gym or chopping vegetables. I love this list from Zen Habits, with lots of little tips on how to manage clutter in five-minute sessions.
The UCLA team mentioned earlier published a book describing their findings, entitled Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors. This book may be worth a look, if only for motivational purposes. One Amazon reviewer of the book described it as a “fascinating and disturbing read about American consumerist culture,” and then went on to say, “As a side benefit, after reading this book I was totally motivated to clean my house. Which is amazing. Because there’s really nothing I hate more than housework.”