Less mess, less stress

Every month, Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good


Less mess, less stress

1. The Project

We love having personal objects, such as photographs and souvenirs, around us – but too much clutter can have a negative impact on our wellbeing.

2. The Aim

Putting away ‘things’ can make a person happier and calmer.

3. The Theory

It’s a modern-day scourge – we have too much stuff. A study by musicMagpie* showed that Britons can’t bear to throw things away, and three-quarters of us hoard clutter for as long as 18 years. Professor Danny Dorling, of Oxford University, says we have six times more objects than our parents.

So, where do we put it all? Although it didn’t exist 30 years ago, the UK self-storage industry is now worth £335million a year. Oliver James, psychologist and author of Affluenza (Vermilion, £10.99), says our identity is increasingly associated with physical things, and throwing them away is tantamount to discarding part of ourselves.

But some experts say that clutter isn’t good for mental health. A 2011 study found that, when an environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts focus and limits your brain’s ability to process information. A 2010 study also found that clutter causes raised cortisol levels and leads to stress and depression. As well as impacting on women’s peace of mind (45 per cent), musicMagpie also found clutter negatively a ects their sex life (one in 20).

Yet, some chaos may be a plus: a University of Michigan study found that the students who had the most innovative, and greatest number, of ideas had a messy workspace.

Now try it out

● Make it a date 

Most of us walk past clutter, thinking: ‘I’ll clear that soon.’ Instead, put a decluttering date in your diary and stick to it. Assign a full day, not a portion of time; real decluttering isn’t quick. Work through rooms systematically, don’t jump from one to the other.

● Be happy with small achievements

It can be overwhelming if you say: ‘I have to declutter the house.’ If you’re faced with a massive task, you may find you’re so despondent, you don’t do anything at all. It is less daunting to say: ‘I’m going to sort out that drawer.’

● Buy experiences, not ‘stuff’

James Wallman, author of Stuffocation (Penguin, £9.99), says we’re happier if we spend less on things and more on happy-making experiences, such as holidays and nights out.

● Donate to someone

A 2008 Harvard Business School study by Michael Norton found giving things away increased happiness more than spending money on ourselves because it connects us to others.

Martha Roberts is an award-winning UK health writer and mental-health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com.

*Onepoll survey for musicMapgie 2014

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Photograph: iStock