Let It Go! Your Stuff, That Is

The under-appreciated psychological benefits of de-cluttering your space.

Posted Sep 30, 2015

Like most people, I have more stuff than I actually use on any kind of a regular basis, even though I regularly engage in "spring cleaning" and other efforts to de-clutter.  I decided to try Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.  As I scientist, I would not call it magic, but I did find it very beneficial. 
Kondo's key recommendation is to pick up each and every item you own and ask yourself whether it "sparks joy."  At first I thought this was kind of hokey, but I (mostly) followed her instructions and instead of just flipping through the clothes in my closet, as I might usually do to clean it out, I actually took them all out of the closet and made a giant heap in the living room. I also followed her other instructions and got all the other hidden stashes of clothes too—out of the coat closet, out of storage, out of the laundry, the sweater hanging on the back of my office chair—and really looked at it all at once, which I'm not sure I've ever done before.  The process really changed how I viewed my clothes. 
Then, mostly following her guide, I went through the rest of the house.  She emphasizes doing it all at once, but I don't see how that would be possible for most people in the U.S.  My family and I don't live in a particularly large home—it's about 2000 square feet (smaller than the U.S. average), with no attic and no garage—and it took me the better part of 6 consecutive weekends to go through everything and I still haven't done the category that she says to save for last, sentimental items such as photos and other keepsakes.  I suppose if you can take a 2-week vacation and do nothing else. 
In addition to taking more time, I broke a couple of her other rules too.  I gave a few clothes to my sister, expensive work clothes I knew she would like.  She has a new job and she was thrilled. I took far more stuff to Goodwill than I threw in the garbage.  I'm too much of an environmentalist to throw away perfectly good items and there are too many people in my Appalachian community who might use them. 

However, I did clear out mountains of stuff.  I was amazed at how much I could clear out.  We have long since given away or passed down the clothes and toys our children have outgrown and I have always thought we were pretty good at staying on top of that.  We still encourage and help them sort through their closets and shelves every year.  They are an age now—12 and 15 years—that I didn't even attempt to go into their rooms to purge.

Still, I was surprised how many remnants of their childhoods I found in other parts of the house.  Crafts that might delight an 8 or 9 year old girl but are not likely to interest a 15-year-old one.  A little pup tent designed for indoor use that they to create their own little hideaway in our old house, but now even the legs of my 12-year-old son would extend far outside the door if he tried to lay down in it.  I found myself getting choked up more than once when coming across these items and remembering those days.  Still, we've absolutely no use for them anymore.  Cleaning up the camping supplies was so exhilarating and made the stuff we still use so easy to access that we were inspired to take our first family camping trip in a few years on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  That was a great family experience that was much better than a bunch of unused craft supplies, however sentimental I might feel about them.  Getting rid of the clutter made room, both physical and psychological "space," for having new experiences. 

I also let go of a lot of CDs I haven't listened to in years and books I will never read again.  Her advice on approaching those is really excellent. For example, I have been carrying around probably some 15 or 20 books on Zen and other Buddhist philosophy.  A few of them I still pick up, but most I probably haven't opened since before my children were born.  Still, I kept them as some emblem of being on top of mindfulness and Zen Buddhism.  Sadly, though, I think that is mostly just an indicator that I did not really understand the message of "no attachment" and staying in the here-and-now that is at the center of most of those books!

Research on the connection between the physical environment and well-being is surprisingly thin and research on the home environment and well-being is even thinner.  Most of the professional writing on the topic seems to come from the fields of architecture and interior design and is more theory than data. There is a small literature on compulsive hoarders, who hang on to things, such as years of old newspapers, to such an extreme degree it becomes a mental health problem. 

The science that exists supports the idea that a less cluttered environment (although not a sterile and empty one) promotes well-being for most people. Other aspects of good housing quality are beneficial too.  You do not have to be a hoarder to benefit from a more spacious and functional living space.

I found the process very liberating and it makes me realize that this is another area that psychology has neglected.  Everyone's situation is different and many people need to acquire essentials more than they need to get rid of excess.  Still, for many people de-cluttering might boost other interventions to alleviate depression, anxiety, and bolster coping with a variety of stressful life events. 

The Data Doctor

Notes:  Have a question for the Data Doctor?  Send an email to sherry.hamby@lifepathsresearch.org or sherry.hamby@gmail.com or put it in the comments.

The Data Doctor appears on Tuesdays (usually!  I'm just back from my silent meditation retreat, which was very rejuvenating.)