My Clutter is Not Your Clutter: What You Need to Know About the Psychology of Space, Possessions & Getting Organized

I’m of the opinion that our environment affects our health and well being. A disorganized home makes me feel equally disorganized and unfocused.

Many of you have commented similarly.

That’s why I’m revisiting this clutter project and trying to understand the extent of which a tidy, organized home translates into less stress and more happiness. And what will that look like tomorrow, 3 months and 3 years from now?

How Our Environment Affects Us

I spent the week learning about how outer order contributes to inner well being. I learned that physical objects and the environment around us has a very real impact on our mood, health, productivity and creativity. They affect us in different ways, but they affect us nonetheless.

Unpleasant environments (traffic jams, hot cars, crowded amusement parks, fluorescent lights) make us anxious or sad and even helpless, which can translate into lack of focus and energy, increased blood pressure, a suppressed immune system, depression and stress.


A pleasant environment has the opposite event.

That’s why being nature is so healing, soothing and restorative. Research shows that people are happier and healthier when they spend time in natural environments – strolling through green grass and underneath tall tress, walking barefoot on a beach or gazing up at the night sky. Even looking at photos of natural landscapes provides similar cognitive and emotional benefits.


The psychology of color suggests that a bedroom painted red, for example, might spark emotions that result in increased heart rate and adrenaline being released, whereas the same room decorated in cooler colors like blues or green promote feelings of calm, rest and relaxation. Even the presence of light, temperature and sound has a profound impact on the quality of our sleep.

I then turned my focus to the art of tidiness and read about the “disorder drives creativity” theory, and how people like Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Mark Twain had messy desks.

messy desks

I came across an interesting study out of the University of Minnesota that took 48 subjects and placed them into two different rooms – a tidy one and a messy one – and gave them the creative task of coming up with new uses for Ping Pong balls. Subjects were then judged independently on the degree of creativity of their ideas. The messy room subjects came up with five times the number of creative responses than the clean room subjects.

In the same study a different group of subjects were asked to order from a smoothie menu. The menu items were the same, but worded differently, one offering a “classic” smoothie and the other calling it “new”. Subjects in the tidy room opted for the classic version, while the messy room subjects chose the new one.

Researchers concluded that a degree of disorder in our immediate environment is a good thing. It allows us to embrace novelty and risk, which in turn drives creativity and innovation.

A stimulating environment encourages the flow of inspiration – that’s one side of the spectrum. But what kind of environments help us find more calm and happiness?

I looked to the minimalists to help me answer that question.

Minimalism is a lifestyle movement has become incredibly popular in recent years. You might have heard about people who live in ridiculously tiny houses and own fewer than 100 things? Fortunately not all minimalists are that extreme, but they do take their relationship with things very seriously.

They believe that ridding our lives of unnecessary possessions and escaping excess, waste and everything “nonessential” allows us more freedom to focus on more important things like health, work, family, and personal development. This minimalist blog claims that:

Minimalism has helped us…

  • Eliminate our discontent
  • Reclaim our time
  • Live in the moment
  • Pursue our passions
  • Discover our missions
  • Experience real freedom
  • Create more, consume less
  • Focus on our health
  • Grow as individuals
  • Contribute beyond ourselves
  • Rid ourselves of excess stuff
  • Discover purpose in our lives

By incorporating minimalism into our lives, we’ve finally been able to find lasting happiness—and that’s what we’re all looking for, isn’t it? We all want to be happy.

Well of course I want to be happy, but the idea of parting with all of my wonderful things just because they’re nonessential sounds boring. And bland. I don’t want that.

I want to find that sweet spot between simple and interesting, tidy and realistic. I want “the perfect amount” for myself and for my family.

Do We All Have a Fixed Point?

Last weekend, my husband and I spent the better part of a Saturday discarding and organizing his clothes. I helped him roll and store his things neatly in the closet, and he was thrilled with the result. But in spite of all of that work, he continues to toss his shorts on the floor and hang his dress shirts on the door.


It’s annoying, but his behavior made me realize something important. Without making a conscious change in habit and mindset, we’ll always instinctively return to our fixed point. As Dominique Browning points out in her New York Times article on Celebrating the Art of Clutter:

The stuff we accumulate works the same way our body weight does. Each of us has a set point to which we invariably return. Each of us has been allotted a certain tolerance, if not a need, for stuff; each of us is gaited to carry a certain amount of weight in possessions.

That’s why for so many of us, the clutter, or the weight or the debt for that matter, keep coming back.

I understand now that just because I experienced an “aha moment” and take the time to put things away doesn’t mean that my husband will follow suit. Yes, he spent a day going through the motions, but I can’t expect the same behavioral shift without him making the commitment to adopt a new habit.

And I don’t know that he ever will because my clutter is not his clutter. A messy house makes me feel a certain degree of weighed down, frustrated and on edge, while that same space doesn’t not phase him in the slightest.

So until he decides to change (fingers crossed), I’ll continue with my mix of leading by example, subtle nagging, jedi mind tricks, and just doing the work myself to keep our home from falling into disarray.

I can only conclude that disorder and chaos on in our lives are inevitable. There is much that’s beyond our control. So if we can control certain elements of our personal spaces in a way that brings out the positive, then maybe we should spend a little more time understanding how to best arrange our environments to suit our needs.

Next week, I’ll be doing exactly that when I dive into the wonderful world of Feng Shui.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *