Is Clutter Truly Bad for the Soul?

“This does not spark joy” – the anthem of 2018 should sound familiar. With the sweeping trends of Scandivanian hygge (cozy and tactilely pleasing aesthetic) and minimalism (austere and bare, but carefully chosen possessions) pressing forward into our consciousness, it was easy to get swept up.

Plenty of people went on donation binges. Organized their garages. Held yard sales to disperse years and years of capitalist accumulation, sold on the idea that without their material baggage, their internal selves would be liberated and free.

After all, Americans are notoriously unhappier in their lives than many other first world countries. And on average, the American household contains about 300,000 possessions

There were several other reasons the movement took off so heavily in the states…

  • Environmentally speaking, consumption begets more consumption which further drains natural resources, emits toxic pollution, and fills landmines. 
  • The notion of “toxic” elements in our lives became a powerful tool in recent therapy styles, and trended in its own right, encouraging people to simply remove or disengage from anything that caused discomfort or pain.
  • It gave people a reason to eschew the marketing messages bombing each of us daily, reminding us we’re never enough… but with this product, we’ll get a little closer to enough. If we’re paring down, we’re not buying more.
  • Physical items don’t hold the same kind of intrinsic worth they did for our parents and their parents. Wealth is generated through passive accumulation of stocks, bonds, and other capital – based not on what they bring to society, but on the perception of their value to the market makers. It doesn’t trouble to throw things away when they are deeply disposable and replaceable.

All totally valid reasons, in their own rights.

But the larger promise of minimalism? With less, we’ll be more. 

As serious practitioners of well-rounded personal health understand, there is no one thing that will make any of us more

With that said, there is actually a significant body of evidence that suggests clutter has an adverse affect on our mental health…

The Cost of Clutter

Let’s start with the obvious.

It’s difficult to live in clutter. You’re always losing things, looking for things, buying replacements for things only to find the original later. 

Clutter makes you late for engagements. It makes something as simple as finding a seat an involved process. It’s harder to pay bills on time when you don’t know what they’re under. 

At its least insidious, clutter is an impediment. Even if it’s only perceived clutter – just thinking your home is cluttered has been shown to raise cortisol (the stress hormone) levels. 

It’s a literal, physical block.

Conversely, studies suggest that cleaning can actually relieve stress – taking control in a positive way may remind us of our own agency and restores our happy-chemical balances. (More on that later.)

However, we have to remind that our health is comprised of four pillars: 

  • Mental
  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • And spiritual

If you don’t think that you’re a spiritual person, or you don’t identify with religion – that’s alright! Your spiritual self still exists… it just looks differently on you.

Take feng shui principles, for example.

Clutter Clogs Chi

“Chi” is the concept of energy. Rather, it is energy. It is the life and breath and heaviness and softness of every person, every object, every space. 

Clearing space clears negative chi, which allows for a) positive chi to enter the space and b) your own energy to occupy what was formerly negative.

Of course, the paradox is that clearing space can, in fact, be stressful. And if the energy in the space is already blocked, accessing your own may be twice as difficult. 

Remember earlier, when we talked about how cleaning clutter can help relieve stress? It’s true! But there’s a mental avenue you’ve got to clear first…

You see, there are two parts of the brain involved in minimizing your possessions – and they’re typically related to conflict and pain : the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula. When you’re deciding “what sparks joy” or what doesn’t, those areas of the brain are activated because of your emotional connections to your objects. The prom dress… the shirt you got on vacation… your mother’s hand-me-down measuring cups.

So what can you do?

First things first… 

Don’t tackle everything at once. And don’t feel like a failure for owning more than 100 items. 

Spend some time in your kitchen and your bedroom – you spend the most time there, anyway. Go through your clothes and your gadgets, the books in your bedside table and your spice rack.

If you boxed things up to be taken away for donations, don’t park it by the door! Take it to the donation station right away. Get that energy out of the house.

If you didn’t give things away this round, that’s alright. Simply cleaning lightened your soul a bit. 

Place an embargo on yourself – no more objects can enter this house for X amount of time. 

Remember… something is always better than nothing. Even if you just tackle a corner, you’ve begun your journey. 

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.