If we apply a gardener’s advice about pruning to cutting the clutter from our lives, we will find ourselves healthier and, according to psychologists, happier. There are two types of clutter we humans acquire, mental and physical. Clutter that takes up space in our minds is usually in the form of negative thoughts that run over and over again on a continuous feedback loop. It undermines our ability to get things done and negatively impacts nearly everything. This month’s focus is on the physical clutter in our personal environment.
Studies published by researchers at medical giants such as the Mayo Clinic and Princeton University, University of Toronto, University of New Mexico, University of New South Wales among others point out that clutter has a negative impact on our wellbeing. According to these experts, regular decluttering of our physical space is an absolute necessity.

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Their research was not to determine if clutter compromises life satisfaction but rather to what extent. Roster and her colleagues found that when people allow clutter to go rogue, “it can threaten to physically and psychologically entrap a person in dysfunctional home environments.” Having a bit of clutter is normal, but when the mess from the “junk drawer” spills over to line-of-sight areas and those areas become regular clutter repositories, it is time to make some changes. Whether or not we realize it, when we live in a cluttered environment, the many things we see around us amount to sensory overload, which is no friend to the brain. Neurons (nerve cells) in the brain receive incoming information and send signals to other parts of the body so it can perform as needed. When – not if – the visual field gets too crowded, neurons are overloaded and fail to function properly, which in turn ushers in a host of problems.

One of the most cited studies of how clutter ultimately compromises life satisfaction was published in 2016 by professors Catherine Roster and M. Peter Jurkat of the University of New Mexico and Joseph Ferrari of De Paul University in Chicago. They contacted the non-profit organization The Institute for Challenging Disorganization to enlist the help of 1,500 adults over the age of 18 who self-identified as organizationally challenged. Roster and her team wanted to learn four things from study participants: 1) how they rated their behavior related to clutter, 2) how attached they felt toward their homes, 3) if they felt the things with which they surrounded themselves represented extensions of themselves, and 4) if they believed their home was a source of psychological comfort to them.

Dysfunction, they concluded, includes stress and an unhealthy diet. They also determined that clutter leads to dysfunction in social situations because people who live with large amounts of clutter were slow to notice visual cues in social interactions whereas people who do not live surrounded by clutter spot visual clues easily. This underscores the brain research on sensory overload.
Lack of organization is the reason for most physical clutter, which is good news because it is fixable. Getting rid of and organizing other people’s “stuff” provides a lucrative living for some, but there are websites dedicated to helping the do-it-yourself individual. Our “stuff” is hard to part with because we feel personally infused with it, and it is uncanny how quickly clutter attracts more clutter. But parting with some of it must be done if clutter has moved well beyond the junk drawer. Some things can be packed or filed, others can be given away, sold, or even (shudder!) thrown out. Use a cell phone to take pictures of things to be given, sold or thrown away. Take trips down Memory Lane and enjoy those electronic pictures, but prune the physical clutter!

There is no disputing the fact that the science is correct. Careful and regular pruning of clutter is necessary in order to avoid being over-crowded with visual stimuli. It takes determination and dedication, but it is worth it. Decluttering helps to make our physical space one that enhances our serenity and strengthens our ability to concentrate, control stress, and thrive. We deserve no less, and it is a gift we can give to ourselves.

Kathy Faenzi PhotoKathy C. Faenzi MA is a Clinical Gerontologist and Senior Care Consultant based in San Mateo, CA.

JC Spicer, M.Ed. is a Freelance Social Science Writer and Developmental Editor based in the U.K.