The Psychological Reason Why Decluttering Makes Us Feel Good (Which Makes So Much Sense)

published May 22, 2023
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Woman smiling while she organizes a junk drawer
Credit: Joe Lingeman

When it comes to hobbies that are good for your mental health, some of the more obvious, mind-quieting activities that immediately come to mind include cooking, gardening, jogging, or reading. For me, I truly find no greater sense of peace and zen than when I’m clearing out clutter and organizing drawers, closets, and cabinets. It quiets my mind, turning off any anxious thoughts swirling in my head, making me feel productive. I always wondered what it was about cleaning and organizing that made me feel like I had a true purpose.

Focusing on what I want to keep and items that must be discarded puts my mind — and life — into working order. It’s why I ask for gift cards to HomeGoods, Target, or The Container Store on any gift-giving holiday — self-care for me means bins, baskets, racks, and containers, oh my!  

My husband shakes his head whenever he catches me surrounded by garbage bags and the entire contents of our pantry scattered on the kitchen counter (and maybe the floor… and the dining room table, too). He calls my passion for organizing and decluttering my “never ending” project. And perhaps he’s right! But I cannot stand it when stuff I never use starts to pile up. 

I feel anxious when drawers are bursting at the seams and I don’t have a clear picture of the things I already have. I feel like a failure when I buy pantry staples like sugar, flour, olive oil, and breadcrumbs only to discover I was already stocked up — but my cabinets were too messy to find anything. Opening up a disorganized drawer or finding a closet without color-coded bins and dividers gives me immediate heart palpitations. However, once I get into a groove of organizing, reorganizing, and tossing what I don’t need, I’m post-yoga-session-level chill. But, why is that? Craig Miller, psychologist and co-founder of Academia Labs, explains that it’s really quite simple: It’s because cleaning out our things is analogous to cleaning out our brains. 

“It segregates thoughts that need to be focused on and thoughts that should be discarded,” Miller says. “Hence, when feeling overwhelmed, that’s why cleaning calms us and makes us feel good.”

I’m relieved to know that decluttering and organizing — ahem, my favorite hobbies — are proven to help my mental health and are scientifically proven to calm our brains, especially when feeling out of control, facing unknown circumstances, or overthinking. As a freelancer, I sometimes don’t know when my next job will pop up, or how much extra income I’ll make from month to month. When the stress of not having a magical crystal ball to predict the future gets me down, I go into panic mode and feel overwhelmed — which is exactly when my husband finds me pulling apart a closet and transforming it into a work of organized art. 

A study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that women who felt their homes were in order had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than women who described their homes as cluttered or full of unfinished projects. The latter women also said they felt more depressed and fatigued. 

Christina Giaquinto, professional organizer and brand ambassador for Modular Closets, sees how organizing and decluttering living spaces has optimized her clients’ daily health and happiness firsthand. “Clutter takes up physical space and uses your mental energy. Your home needs to be a sanctuary, a place focused on memories, family, friends, and a place you feel safe and relaxed,” she explains.

I can attest that when I started writing this piece, my desk was piled high with papers and books. Taking just 10 minutes to straighten up instantly reset my focus and got me into a headspace where I could write with clarity and purpose — a cluttered environment has always stifled my creativity. Jessica Miller, a licensed mental health counselor, explains that “clutter is distracting, making it harder to complete tasks.” 

“A neat and orderly environment will enhance mental clarity and make you feel more focused and productive. Clutter and chaos feels daunting, giving the impression that we’re out of control,” Miller said.

That act of regularly organizing and cleaning your space leaves you feeling accomplished because you’re seeing the task through to completion. “It activates the reward process in the brain and releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine,” explains Miller. She shares that the easiest way to stay organized is to take as little as 10 minutes every day to make sure even one small area of a room is cleaned up. 

Ana Sokolovic, a counselor with Blue ABA Therapy, encourages patients to clean and organize their space because of the tangible peace it provides. You can see — and feel — the immediate, positive effects of your actions. “We might not know what to expect in the near future, but we sure know what to expect when we open the first drawer!” When I know my drawers aren’t stuffed shut and that everything in my closets have a “home,” it’s better than any motivational pep talk to get my act together and get things (both big and small) done. I’ve found that when my house is (mostly) clean and organized that my to-do list is shorter and I’m not scrambling to get things done — like signing permission slips with five minutes to get out the door. Plus, I see the physical benefits, too. An organized kitchen makes me want to use it for meal prepping, or taking the time to cook healthy meals because I know where to find all my ingredients and gadgets.