Tidy House, Tidy Mind

Tidy house, tidy mind: How cleaning can improve your mental health

If you’re feeling a little flat, grabbing a duster or hauling out the vacuum may be an unappealing prospect. But housework has been shown to have a whole host of mental and physical health benefits – influencing your mood, your sleep and even your heart health. 

From Buddhist philosophy to scientific study, here we explore the theory that tidiness and happiness go hand in hand. 

Cleanliness is next to mindfulness

Cleaning is an important aspect of spiritual practice for Japanese Buddhist monks. This stems from the idea that the self doesn’t exist in isolation – only as part of its environment. So by tending to our environment, we are tending to ourselves. They also see de-cluttering as an important part of throwing away the past and existing in the here and now. 

Focusing on the present is central to the idea of mindfulness, and Buddhist monks incorporate mindfulness techniques into their cleaning rituals. Homing in on what’s going on around us shifts our perspective, and can take us out of the thought patterns that might cause us worry. 

Clutter and stress

Clutter forces us to live in confined spaces, making our homes feel oppressive and disordered. It can also give us a sense that we’re not in control of our surroundings, which has the potential to greatly affect our mood. This was confirmed in a 2010 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The study found that those with cluttered homes actually released higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Of course, it’s difficult to separate cause from effect, as those of us who are stressed may find it more difficult to allocate time to household tasks. But a 2011 study by Princeton University did show that clutter can also affect our concentration, which in turn could increase our stress levels. The study found that the visual cortex can become overwhelmed by task-irrelevant objects, making it harder to focus on what we’re doing. 

Health benefits of housework

A study at Indiana University found that people who kept their homes clean were healthier and more active than those who didn’t. And an earlier study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that 20 minutes of sustained exercise a week – including cleaning – can not only improve our fitness levels, but it can also cut stress, anxiety and depression by up to 20% (as long as you work up a sweat in the process).

There may also be a link between the tidiness of our homes and how well we sleep. A survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that people who make their beds daily are 19% more likely to regularly get a good night’s sleep. Additionally, 75% of people surveyed said they sleep better when their sheets are freshly cleaned.

Finding the time

Many of us have busy lives and multiple commitments, so making time for chores can be difficult. Additionally, if you’re feeling anxious or sad, it can be even harder to find the motivation. 

Do you ever find yourself thinking “I haven’t got time to do all my housework now, so what’s the point in doing any?” This is a common barrier to getting things done. But breaking big tasks down into smaller ones will make them less overwhelming. You might also want to try a little mindfulness while you clean. Give all your attention to the task, and you’ll find a little respite from your worldly worries. 

Lastly, if your mental or physical health makes it more difficult to do housework, or you’re overloaded with other commitments, ask for help. All too often we default to saying “I’m fine” when asked, but not being fine – and needing a helping hand – is OK too.