We have all heard the phrase “a cluttered desk, a cluttered mind.” Indeed, as Martha Stewart, the magazine Real Simple, and thousands of self-help books will tell you, being neat and tidy leads to improved mental health, life satisfaction, and better thinking.
But, it is true? Does being in an orderly environment – at work or at home – improve our lives? It turns out that it depends on what we are trying to do. In a nut shell, orderly environments prompt us to stick to valued social norms, like being generous or eating healthy (think grabbing that apple rather than the tempting candy bar). And, it’s easy to see how such choices might improve our well-being. However, disorderly environments have their perks too. For instance, disorder promotes a creative mindset.
In a paper published this month in the journal Psychological Science, psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues set out to test exactly how organized versus disorganized environments alter our thinking and behavior. So, they ran a simple test. They paid volunteers to fill out a series of questionnaires in either an orderly workspace or a disorderly one – the former neat and tidy, the latter with papers strewn everywhere. While in the workspace, the volunteers learned that the department in which the study they were taking part in was being conducted, was involved in a charity that gave books and toys to children in need. The question was, did the volunteers wish to donate to the charity? Sure enough, people in the clean environment were more generous in their donations. Those folks in the clean and tidy room were also more likely to opt for an apple over a candy bar when given as a parting gift for their study participation.