Research shows cleaning is a powerful stress reliever—and I’ve experienced it myself.
Confession: I am 24, live in New York City, and more often than not, I rather spend my Friday nights cleaning my apartment than out at a bar with a cocktail in hand.
So I totally understand why people are suddenly obsessing over Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix. Keeping a clean home is weirdly therapeutic, and the simple act of getting rid of things you don’t need, folding clothes, organizing your pantry or closet, and even scrubbing a bathtub are powerful de-stressors.
But I didn’t always practice what I now preach. I have always considered myself a clean person, but just last year, I was living in an apartment in a different state that was triple the size of my current one-bedroom. I had five closets and a storage locker in the basement—which means I had plenty of space to store a lot of stuff: clothes that only saw the light of day once a year, boxes of extra curtains and bed sheets, multiple beach umbrellas (because obviously you need different sizes), and toiletries I bought in bulk because they were on sale.
After downsizing to a space that had just one small closet (for two people!), I realized just how unnecessary it all was. I bought things just to have them. Many items didn’t serve a purpose and I quickly became overwhelmed by it all.
That’s why the infatuation with Marie Kondo’s KonMari method makes sense to me: keep the items that truly make you happy and get rid of the ones that don’t.
But my love for tidying up goes beyond getting rid of things. I genuinely enjoy cleaning, especially when I feel stressed or anxious (a constant in my life). If I need to clear my head, I whip out the vacuum. After an argument, I walk away and do the dishes. And when I feel too tense to do anything else? You better believe the bathroom is getting a once-over.
Cleaning makes me feel lighter, more relaxed, and accomplished. It feels just as good as that post-workout high—you know, when that rush of endorphins validates that you do, indeed, have your life together. But why? I know I’m not the only one that feels this way, so I talked to a psychologist about it.
How clutter impacts your mental health
As it turns out, science shows that a messy home may actually dampen your mental well-being. In one 2010 study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers captured the life of 60 dual-income families. The participants were given a camera and were asked to do a tour of their homes, meaning they walked around their space, discussing their things and what they meant to them.
The researchers analyzed those narratives and looked for language specific to clutter, unfinished home projects, and things that needed to be done. The conclusion? Women who perceived their homes as cluttered had less healthy patterns of the stress hormone cortisol, explains lead study author Darby Saxbe, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, and they felt more stress as the day went on. People who didn’t feel this sense of clutter, on the other hand, actually experienced a drop in their cortisol levels.
It may boil down to the feeling of never-ending work and obligation, she explains, and your brain doesn’t like to deal with the weight of that responsibility.
That could be one reason why people are feeling connected to Kondo’s methods. “We’re living in this era of very affordable, disposable goods. People accumulate a lot of stuff, they lose track of it, and then they have to buy the same things,” says Saxbe. “That creates more of a cognitive demand for people, because they have to plan and decision-make about all of those things that are surrounding them.”
So when you finally rummage through your closet and set aside a pile of clothes to donate? Your brain actually relaxes at the sight of fewer options in the morning. “It is freeing. If you have fewer things, you have fewer decisions to make,” Saxbe says.
So why exactly does tidying up feel so therapeutic for some people?
We know that living with too much stuff can feel overwhelming, but I still wanted to understand why cleaning helped clear my head so much.
Especially for Millennials, there are many life stressors that can feel completely unpredictable, says Saxbe—say, like your job security, dealing with a mental health issue, or even the state of our planet. All of these things can weigh down your thoughts, and even make you feel helpless.
As silly as it sounds, tidying up can help you feel a bit more in control over your own world. “You’re putting things in order. Cleaning can be an escape and give people a sense of mastery and control that might be hard to find in other places,” says Saxbe.
Plus, there’s a reason the physical act of cleaning can feel just as good as going for a walk outside. “A lot of what we do these days is on screens. We’re typing, thinking, and living in a pretty abstract world. The idea of doing something really physical that uses your body, I think it does put your mind in a different space—just like exercise or going outside. It can give you some reframing,” says Saxbe.
That’s not to say that cleaning replaces the health benefits of your daily workout. But if you find that a tidy home seems to help you think more clearly, breathe more deeply, and let go of tension, you may be doing your mind a favor. It may not be “life-changing,” as Kondo’s book claims, but it certainly might make life easier to deal with.