A viral book about the 'life-changing magic' of cleaning up has sparked a movement -- here's how to use it to actually feel happier

Think you’re pretty clean?

Think again.

In order to be “tidy,” according to Marie Kondo, whose recent book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has inspired a cult following, you must have successfully completed a tidying “marathon.” This marathon, to be done only once in one’s life, includes separating all your stuff into five distinct, ordered stacks, and then keeping only those items which “spark joy” in your body.

The real question, of course, is this: Could an act as simple as ‘tidying up’ actually make you feel better?

Kondo’s “Konverts” (their preferred name for themselves) say yes. When deciding what to keep or discard, Konverts are instructed to “hold each object firmly in both hands as if communing with it” and to “pay close attention to how [their] body responds,” Kondo outlines in a follow-up book to “Magic” called “Spark Joy.” When something sparks joy, Kondo writes, “you should feel a little thrill, as if the cells in your body are slowly rising. When you hold something that doesn’t bring you joy … you will notice that your body feels heavier.”

Getting rid of these joy-less objects, then, should help give you a sense of increased lightness and peace, right? Unfortunately, the science is a little more complicated than that. But familiarising yourself with it can help you set real goals for yourself — and make room for some real magic to happen.

Clutter, stress, and depression

It’s not surprising that feeling surrounded by a sea of stuff is linked with feelings of stress and depression. But precisely how these feelings are connected — including whether one actually causes the other — is a bit murkier.

In their 2012 book, “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors,” a team of archaeologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists from UCLA’s Center on the Everyday Lives of Families detail some of the findings from their 10-year systematic study of home life in 32 middle-class, dual-income families in Los Angeles. Among other things, they found that for many families, the task of managing their material goods — their stuff — was a large source of stress, especially for mothers.

A 2009 study, which looked at levels of the stress hormone cortisol in married couples, found a more precise link between clutter and stress in women. Women in the study who rated their homes as “cluttered” or full of “unfinished projects” tended to have cortisol patterns linked with chronic stress and other poor health outcomes. These women also reported having increased depressed moods over the course of the day. On the other hand, women who rated their homes as more “restful” or “restorative” tended to have healthier cortisol patterns and also reported a decrease in depressive feelings throughout the day.

When it’s present in excess, clutter and disorder can sometimes point to a bigger health problem. Depression, for example, can make a simple task like showering difficult and turn something like cleaning out a desk into an insurmountable chore. Similarly, chronic pain and ADHD can get in the way of getting organised.

At its most severe, compulsive hoarding — keeping so many objects that they overtake living spaces and interfere with someone’s quality of life — is a specific disorder of its own. The psychology manual known as the DSM-IV estimates that some 2-5% of Americans may suffer from hoarding disorder.

‘Tidying up’ and feeling good

Just because there’s a link between clutter and negative feelings doesn’t mean there’s a link between organisation and happiness. But some studies suggest that physical orderliness — a clean, neatly organised office, for example — may be linked with some positive outcomes, like eating healthier.

A 2013 study comprised of three different experiments, for example, found that when they gave a set of volunteers in two types of rooms a choice between a chocolate bar and an apple for a snack, the people in a cluttered room were more likely to choose the chocolate bar, while those in the neat room were more likely to choose the apple. When the same participants were given the option to donate money to a charitable cause, those in the orderly room also tended to give more money than those in the disorderly room.

Still, the same study also found links between physical disorder — or a messy office, say — and creativity.

In their second experiment, another group of people in another disorderly room were found to be more creative (as defined by the types of new uses they could come up with for ping pong balls) than those in the orderly room. And in their third experiment, another group of people in a neat room preferred an option labelled “classic,” while those in a disorderly room preferred the one labelled “new.”

The takeaway from all of this, for the average person, is probably rather simple: Tidy up when you have the time or when your environment starts to stress you out, and stop when you feel like the need to be neat is cramping your style.

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