By Kate Rope
Unexpected reasons we like doing it and the surprising benefits cleaning can have for us.
It Gives You a Sense of Accomplishment
With cleaning, we “get to have an end product. In many tasks you don’t get an end product that’s so observable,” says Dr. Fugen Neziroglu, Ph.D., director of the Bio Behavioral Institute in Great Neck, New York and author of Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding. For many of our readers and Michelle Jesperson, 37, a program manager for the State of California in Walnut Creek, the joy of cleaning comes from that tangible result. “My satisfaction is mostly gleaned from having a clean home with things organized and put away,” says Jesperson.
Achieving that can have spillover effects into other areas of our lives as well, says Marla Deibler, Psy.D. director of the Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia. “When we set out to accomplish a goal like cleaning the fridge, we gain confidence that we can succeed,” which helps us tackle projects in other areas of our lives. It’s one of the reasons Julia Stone, 36, a CPA and mom to two in Denver Colorado makes cleaning a priority in her home. “If I can even get something silly organized like a junk drawer, it feels like I accomplished something. I feel ready to take on other challenges.”
It Calms Your Mind
Many readers said that cleaning helped them feel more at peace, which is one of the reasons Rebecca Beaton, Ph.D., founder and director of The Anxiety & Stress Management Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, encourages her clients to use cleaning as a therapeutic task. “Cleaning up our external environment can make us feel like we’re cleaning up our psyche,” says Beaton.
A good scrub on the weekend makes Stone “feel more peaceful, like I am starting my week fresh.” So she typically tackles the laundry, sweeps floors, wipes down kitchen and bathroom surfaces, and tidies up all toys, books, and clothes on Saturday and Sunday. With those tasks under her belt, she feels “like things will go smoothly” during the week.
It's a Way to Stay in Control
Living in a clean space “gives us a sense of control over our environment which brings comfort,” says Deibler. Maria Ping, 35, a nursing student and mom to two in Chicago, even cleans her house before going on vacation. “I love going on vacation knowing that the house is perfect and when I come home on Monday everything will look the same.”
Beaton says cleaning can even help people “feel more control over their environment when they feel a lack of control in other areas of their lives.” There's no way to force our bosses to love the job we did on that presentation at work, but we can make our home a clean and inviting space that gives us happiness.
And there’s an evolutionary need for that control says Sally Augustin, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist and principal at Design with Science. “We’re the kind of animals that still like to keep track of what’s around us all the time,” says Augustin. Even though we’re not worried a saber tooth tiger will attack us from the dining room, “our sensory organs have evolved to always be taking stock of what’s around us,” says Augustin. So we gravitate toward uncluttered spaces that are easier to survey. And when we’re in them, we feel more relaxed.
It's a Stress Reducer
When Tula Karras, 43, a contributing editor to Self magazine and freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York, was moving apartments she found herself spending several days deep cleaning her old apartment to get her deposit back. A few days later, the building’s superintendent called to say that in his 19 years of working there he had never seen a tenant leave an apartment so clean, and Karras realized she had been using cleaning as a way to handle “the stress of the move.”
Karras, and many of our readers who responded on Facebook, also clean to take a break from the pressures of work and everyday life. “As a freelancer, when you have a deadline, you do everything else on your to-do list before doing your work,” says Karras. Some might see that as procrastination, but Neziroglu says it can be a healthy way to handle anxiety. “People may clean as a form of distraction…and doing something mindless can rest your brain.”
It's a Form of Meditation
In fact, in our fast-paced, work-centered lives, the mindlessness of cleaning may be one of its biggest allures. A surprising number of our readers said that cleaning is actually a relaxing activity for them—whether they crank up their iPod while they do it or just allow their brains to take a break from everyday thoughts. That makes sense to Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen Buddhist priest in Southern California, and author of Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, who says the “physical components of housework are meditative, because they are simple tasks you perform with your own body, and they are repetitive.” Plus, “you don’t have to analyze how to do them, you don’t have to go to school and perfect them, you just have to get in there and do it.”
Ping, whose daily cleaning to-do list includes making beds, doing laundry, unloading the dishwasher, wiping down kitchen counters, and picking up endless amounts of dog hair, finds comfort in that repetitive, unchanging aspect of cleaning. “I like the sameness of it,” says Ping. “I like change everywhere else in my life, but not cleaning.”
It's a Mood-Boosting Workout
Not only can cleaning burn calories and be good for our bodies, but it also “increases endorphins, which are the feel-good chemicals in our brain,” says Deibler. “We get a sense of reduced stress and anxiety, and an improvement of mood.” In fact, says Deibler, a 2008 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that “even 20 minutes a week of household cleaning reduces feelings of stress and reduces the risk of psychological difficulties. So, it not only improves mood, but it is also a little preventative, making you more resistant to stressors.”
It's a Reflection of Who You Are and How You Feel
As a regular treating psychologist on TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive, Beaton knows the detrimental effects a cluttered and dirty space can have on someone’s mental health. “Disorganization degrades a person’s sense of self-worth,” says Beaton. “If you feel like your space is cluttered and dirty, it’s difficult not to internalize that.”
A messy home can also be an indicator of how you're feeling about yourself. “People are less likely to take care of their environment when they don’t feel good about themselves,” says Deibler. “And the more chaotic their environment becomes, the worse they feel about themselves.”
But beyond undoing the negative effects of living in a mess, cleaning your home “gives you a chance to reassess the message you want to send about who you are to yourself and others,” argues Augustin. If you’ve had a major life event such as going back to school or becoming part of a couple, reorganizing your home is an opportunity to telegraph that to the world by putting up new pictures or restocking your bookshelves.
It's a Reflection of How You Take Care of Yourself
“The state of your bed is the state of your head,” says Miller who views stacks of dirty dishes and piles of laundry as emblematic of how someone is managing their life. “If you are practicing avoiding difficult things in one area of your life, you do that everywhere.”
Miller made a radical transformation in her late 30s when she left her life as a successful PR exec to become a Zen priest. One of the pivotal changes she made on that journey was doing her own housework after paying someone else to do it for 15 years. “We wake up, we produce waste and laundry and dust and messes. They are the real stuff in our lives. So the time that we spend avoiding denigrating and demeaning these fundamental [cleaning] tasks means we are rejecting our own life,” says Miller. “By turning toward what you would rather not face, you are making a profound, radical transformation in every aspect of your life. You begin to feel much more comfortable in your life, you feel competent, you feel fulfilled.”