The “broken windows theory” of policing holds that when a community tolerates minor examples of disorder and petty crime, such as broken windows, graffiti, turnstile-jumping, or drinking in public, people are more likely to commit more serious crimes.

As a law-enforcement theory, it’s controversial, but whether or not it’s true on a city-wide level, I think it’s true on a personal level.

My “broken windows” are the particular signs of disorder that make me feel out of control and overwhelmed.

  • Unsorted mail
  • Messy stacks of newspapers
  • Shoes in odd places
  • Cluttered counters
  • Dirty dishes scattered around the apartment (for my husband, as he often emphatically reminds me, dirty dishes left overnight are broken windows; for me, as long as the dishes make it into the sink, life feels under control)

From what I’ve observed, people’s other “broken windows” often include:

  • Staying in pajamas or sweats all day
  • Eating food straight from the container
  • Wearing stained or ripped clothes
  • Goofing off at work, even if no one notices
  • Piles of laundry or trash
  • An unmade bed

About the last item: surprisingly, whenever I ask people what resolutions they’ve tried, and that make them happier, “Make my bed” is the most common resolution that’s mentioned. It’s a very trivial thing, but it makes a big difference. (By the way, a survey by the National Sleep Foundation showed that people who make their bed are more likely to report a better night’s rest.)

Does fixing a broken window really matter? After all, in the context of a happy life, a pile of unsorted mail isn’t a big deal. In themselves, perhaps, these broken windows don’t matter much. But enforcing small signs of order make us feel more in control–and happier.

What are your “broken windows”? They’re different for different people. Do you agree that small signs of disorder can make you feel out of control, generally?

Also ...

  • If you love reading reports about the latest research as much as I do, check out Science Daily.

  • Would you like signed, personalized, free bookplates for copies of Happier at Home or The Happiness Project, for yourself or for friends? Or a signature card with "Paradoxes of Happiness" or "Tips for Happiness in Your New Home"? Request them here. Don't know what I'm talking about? Look here.

Most Recent Posts from The Happiness Project

Would You Commit a Random Act of Kindness...

If It Took 1 Minute & Could Save 8 Lives?

7 Things I Learned About Myself, from Getting a Dog

The funny thing? I knew all this before Barnaby arrived!

A Lesson in Happiness and Love I Learned From Rob Lowe

Sometimes, we can be generous, by taking. A mystery.