Featured on Tonic. Author: Julie Stewart
For a certain type of person, taking a few minutes to whisk the Swiffer Wet across the kitchen floor can feel akin to the soothing effects of meditation. Even the sight of a spotless home—especially at the end of a long, stressful day—can temporarily seem to blunt whatever’s bothering them.
If you're one of those people, then there could be a few explanations for why cleanliness translates to lower levels of stress and anxiety, says Darby Saxbe, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. “[Cleaning] gives people a sense of mastery and control over their environment,” she says. “Life is full of uncertainty and many situations are out of our hands, but at least we can assert our will on our living space. Clutter can be visually distracting, too, and serve as a nagging reminder of tasks and chores undone.”
From a practical standpoint, many people also like the sense of knowing that it’s easy to access the things they need. It’s frustrating to live in a cluttered space where it’s difficult to find useful objects, she says. Her research even suggests that women who find their home environments stressful have more depressed moods during the day, while those who find their homes to be restorative experience fewer depressed moods.
Not everyone, however, has the same affinity for cleaning—a fact you may know all too well if you’ve ever argued with a significant other about the state of the kitchen sink. Personality may be part of it: Generally speaking, people who like to clean may be more conscientious and detail-oriented, Saxbe says, while people who dislike it may be more spontaneous and less organized.
The psychology behind the stress-reducing effects of cleaning could also have an evolutionary basis. People sometimes turn to rituals—including cleaning—to reduce stress stemming from other parts of their lives, says Martin Lang, an evolutionary anthropologist at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic who studies ritualized behavior. “The human mind likes to predict things,” Lang adds. “We like to know what’s going to happen because it allows us to survive in and extract resources from the environment.”
When we lack control—or perceive that things are chaotic and unpredictable—we may experience anxiety. From an evolutionary point of view, that's meant to be a helpful impulse, Lang says. “It pushes us to take precautions and try to control our environment so there is nothing surprising that could potentially harm us.”
There are other factors at play, as well: “If there is order to the house or environment, we may feel safe and like we can move in the space,” Lang says, which could help explain its anxiety-relieving effects. When you clean, you also move and behave in predictable, often repetitive ways. This alone “can be a cognitive mechanism that can help people deal with anxiety,” he says. In one study, Lang found that people who were anxious about a public speech ran a cleaning cloth over an object more times than those who were not anxious.
At the extremes, however, a person’s relationship with cleaning could be a sign of a more troubling underlying issue. Fear of germs or contamination, an obsession with having things symmetrical or in a perfect order, excessive cleaning, and ordering or arranging things in a particular, precise way, for instance, can all be signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Meanwhile, people who feel perfectly comfortable living in squalor may have decreased activity in the brain’s insular cortex and amygdala, research suggests.
But if simply tidying up makes you feel better after a tough day, there’s no downside to running the vacuum when the mood strikes.