How decluttering your space could make you healthier and happier

Extra stuff isn't just messy. It could be holding you back from living your best life. Here's what you need to know.

By Matthew Clark

Envious of those neat, tidy spaces and empty shelves that fill home decor blogs and websites? Blank space can be beautiful, and popular books promise strategies to shed extra stuff. But is minimalism livable? Some research suggests that de-cluttering can have as much of an effect on your well-being as it does on your physical space.

It's not just in your head: Extra stuff is stressful

If the constant stream of things to pick up around your home leaves you feeling anxious, you're not alone. Objects have the power to do just that. In fact, when working couples gave tours of their homes, women who used more words describing clutter and disorganization also tended to show levels of the stress hormone cortisol, suggesting chronic stress. On the flip side, those who described their homes as being restful or talked about their beautiful outdoor spaces were less stressed and reported less sad feelings as the day went on.

What you can do: Set aside 10 to 15 minutes at the end of each day to put stray items away.

Distracted much? Clutter makes it hard to focus

Got a lot of stuff on your desk? It may make it harder to do your job. That's because a cluttered environment can make your brain less effective at processing information — and more prone to frustration.

In other words, taking a timeout to organize your space may actually save you time by allowing you to work more efficiently.

What you can do: Clear your computer desktop — and your physical one — at the end of each day.

More stuff doesn't equal more fun

As much as advertisers may work to convince you otherwise, having more things doesn't necessarily make you happier. Case in point: In one experiment, when toddlers were given just four toys to play with, they played twice as long as when they had 16 toys to choose from.

Flitting from toy to toy doesn't just mean more picking up for caregivers either. It means lost opportunities to develop longer attention spans during free play that can translate to better focus and attention later in life as well.

What you can do: Box up extra items and put them out of sight, out of mind. Ready for a change? Swap boxes for a fresh mix of toys. Don't miss them? Sell or donate the extras. (No kids? Try the same technique with your clothes.)

A tendency toward hoarding can keep you up at night

Sleep problems keep as many as a third of adults up at night. And while experts have long recognized a link between insomnia and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, another link is emerging in research: hoarding.

Hoarding disorder, which affects just 2 to 6 percent of the population, goes far beyond disorganization or a garden-variety tendency to accumulate stuff. It is diagnosed when clutter becomes so debilitating that space becomes unusable and even unsafe. One possible reason for a connection between hoarding and sleep: Lack of sleep inhibits decision-making, namely decisions about acquiring (or getting rid of) stuff.

For the other 98 percent of people who don't have hoarding disorder, but simply struggle with "too much stuff" syndrome, consider this: Having fewer things means making fewer choices throughout the day. And that may add up to less willpower spent trying to make the right ones.

What you can do: Brush up on your healthy sleep routine. Try winding down with a cup of herbal tea and a good (paper) book, rather than TV or social media.

When you think of taking care of yourself, think of your health, plan fun events with your loved ones, but also have a peaceful and organized living space.

April 05, 2018 See more In-depth