It’s that time of year when we think about doing a thorough spring cleaning of our homes. Some people switch out winter clothes for summer outfits and store them away for the next season. They may declutter, organize and clean up their home. Many people believe that cleanliness is next to godliness. But is it true? Do neat freaks get the moral high ground over people who prefer a mess?
I like to think of myself as a tidy and well-organized person. The first thing I do when I get home at the end of the day is line the bird cage with fresh paper and “scan and can” the mail, recycling all unnecessary paper. I’m unnerved that our neighborhood no longer recycles glass. If I have a work project to complete, I organize my environment before getting to it. It clears my mind in order to focus better. My husband on the other hand, while I wouldn’t want to call him a slob, prefers his workplaces to be a free-flowing work in progress. He is most comfortable in a haphazard environment.
One can argue on both sides of the neat freak – slob continuum. Some say that cleanliness is associated with an improved mood, decreased stress, improved productivity, being more generous, and eating healthier foods. An Indiana University study found that people with clean houses are healthier and more active than people with messy houses. In fact, cleanliness is one factor that predicts physical health. A different study showed that women who described their living spaces as cluttered were more likely to be depressed and fatigued than women who described their homes as “restful.” Women with cluttered homes have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. In 2011, a Princeton University study found that clutter can actually make it more difficult to focus on a particular task. But in its extremes, cleanliness can become a manic activity; a psychological disorder.
On the other hand, a mess provides a more fertile ground for originality and creativity. Einstein, Mark Twain and Steve Jobs had messy desks. Clutter can be mentally exhausting for some, but I’ve also heard that hoarders feel best within tight spaces. Well-meaning friends or professionals may help the hoarder clean out their homes, only to find that they have created the same environment months or years later.
The problem begins when you share space with someone who objects to your style. Slobs are never going to be neat freaks, and neat freaks are not going to be total slobs. The truth is that we have certain traits and preferences that don’t change much once formed and firmly established. These orientations come from personality traits, childhood experiences, and deeply held values. We might choose to accommodate to others wishes, but we are likely to revert to our set points if left unchecked. If we make 25% change to accommodate to someone else, that’s probably as much as we’ll be able to change.
People thrive in different conditions. The extreme ends of the continuum are unhealthy and cause significant distress. But short of that, one end of the spectrum is no better than the other.