The answer to chaos

The decluttering trend started even before the corona-enforced lockdown. But does clearing out and tidying up really make people happier or is it just an escape from boredom?

Text: Nicole Krättli; photo: Unsplash

First we colour-coordinated the clothes in our wardrobe, then learnt how to sort out our kitchen cupboards, before duly turning to expired creams and medicines in our medicine cabinets. In the past 12 months of the pandemic, is there anyone who hasn’t cleared out their wardrobe at least once, sorted their filing cabinet or turned the cellar upside down on a clear-out mission? But decluttering and clearing up were in trend even before our collective house arrest started. One unforgettable moment in the Netflix series of Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo was when she picked up each pencil individually and asked the owners: “Does it spark joy?” No? Then get rid of it!

Anyone who has ever stood in a radically cleared-out, perfectly organised room knows that blissful feeling of satisfaction. The world outside may be going to pot, but at least there’s clarity and structure in your own home. So it’s not surprising to see that decluttering coaches are springing up all over the place and countless tidy-up guides are appearing as books, articles and videos promising to improve and simplify our lives.

“We humans aren’t very good at being idle.”
Lukas Erpen, psychologist

Disorder affects all areas of life

In fact, researchers at the University of California in the United States have discovered that disorder can make people feel stressed, anxious and depressed. And researchers at a university in Montreal, Canada, have also proved that it is easier to focus and work well in an ordered environment. Disorder can even have an impact on interpersonal relationships. A US study conducted in 2016 concluded that the study participants found it harder to interpret the emotions of characters in a film if they were acting in front of a messy background.

But Lukas Erpen, Swiss psychologist and psychotherapist, believes that another factor has contributed in recent months: “Decluttering is an activity that makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. We humans aren’t very good at being idle. So tidying up can also be an escape from boredom.” However, psychologically speaking, clearing out your home occasionally can have a positive effect, allowing you to regain an overview of your household and all your belongings.

“Quietness and boredom can give rise to creative ideas”
Lukas Erpen

Create space for creativity

This is also because people can otherwise quickly come to feel overwhelmed. Having numerous options can cause many problems. In this context, US psychologist Barry Schwartz talks of the paradox of choice and explains that people with too many choices feel trapped and unhappy. “Maximisers” – people always striving for the best in life – tend to suffer the most from this. People who own fewer things are less affected by the agony of choice, which in turn may lead to a considerably simpler life.

So, regular clean-outs can definitely make you happier. It only becomes critical when the love of order turns into compulsion. For example, if you have to put away your underwear in your drawer in a very particular way – and only this way, explains Erpen. The boundaries are fluid. “This behaviour is problematic if the person in question spends several hours a day cleaning their flat, is afraid of dirt, and perhaps even isolates himself socially because of it,” says Erpen. But even if you don’t get carried away with decluttering and cleaning, Erpen recommends simply putting up with inactivity from time to time: “Quietness and boredom can give rise to creative ideas. So it’s worth putting up with it now and again.”

Decluttering according to Marie Kondo

  • Clean up by category instead of by room. For example, start with your clothes, then move onto your books, etc.
  • Focus on what you want to keep instead of what you want to throw away.
  • Think about what you want to own in the future, not what possessions you used to care about.
  • Make sure that you can see all your things when you look in the drawer or cupboard so you can keep track of your possessions.