Dusting your stuff can be good for what ails you

A Wave reader from Fenwick Island writes:

Dear Dr. Hurd,

I really liked your article about holiday clutter and guiltlessly throwing things out. Too much stuff drives me crazy! But I wonder sometimes if it’s obsessive or neurotic that I actually enjoy cleaning my house. It makes me feel good and it calms me down, but I worry that maybe it’s mentally unhealthy.

Dear Wave Reader:

Good news for clean-freaks everywhere: It’s perfectly healthy.

Cleaning your house is a tried-and-true way of preserving what’s yours and making your environment more sane and enjoyable. It’s a way to gain a sense of control over your life in a concrete and immediate way. That’s why it feels good!

It is, of course, possible to clean in a neurotic, irrational way—just like it’s possible to (over)do anything in a neurotic, irrational way. For example, a person with psychological problems will clean the same things over and over, knowing everything is fine but feeling a compulsion to do so anyway. But for most people, that isn’t what cleaning is about.

New York psychologist Vivien Wolsk, Ph.D., puts it very well: ‘There’s something relaxing, even meditative, about these chores. When we clean, we have a visible impact on what we do: Something is dirty, and you make it clean.’ Dr. Wolsk even goes so far as to ‘prescribe’ simple household tasks as alternatives to drug therapy for depressed or anxious people. When washing windows, she tells her clients, they should imagine that their perceptions are becoming as clear as the glass. When ironing, they are told to imagine ‘smoothing out the wrinkles’ in their lives. It might sound silly at first (and cleaning won’t solve all your problems), but it can clear your mind and relieve some tension along the way.

I think it all boils down to immediate gratification—in a constructive sense. Many people are frustrated about problems that they can’t solve: relationships, traffic, the real estate/stock market and so forth. Margaret Horsfield, author of ‘Biting the Dust: The Joys of Housework’ writes, ‘You can feel that you’ve accomplished something in this uncontrollable world.’ It’s the same for activities such as woodwork, painting and other forms of visual construction, but the advantage of cleaning is that it’s quicker and requires no special skills. And it’s something that has to be done if your life isn’t to become a stinky, dusty, disorganized mess. Not everyone needs carpentry, but everyone needs to make sure the toilet bowl is disinfected.

Not sure about all this? Think about the exact opposite: What about the psychological state of a person whose house a tremendous mess? Think of the physical (and mental) clutter this disorganization creates—not to mention the poor self-esteem and disregard for quality of life. Cleanliness is certainly a state of mind for which a healthy person should strive—perhaps not as the centerpiece of their life, but as a very important and calming byproduct.

Psychologists speculate that extreme messiness is symptomatic of low self-esteem. If you respect yourself, you want the things around you to be clean and organized. Cleanliness (that is not compulsive) is a reflection of one’s inner sense that, ‘I like my life and I want it to be as enjoyable and efficient as I can make it.’ When you like yourself, you don’t want annoying obstacles (such as losing your keys amidst the mess, or wondering what it is that’s moving beneath the week-old pizza boxes) to distract you from your day-to-day activities.

I hear complaints from parents about how messy their kids’ rooms are. In some cases, this could be indicative of low self-esteem and even depression, but for the most part, teenagers who keep their rooms messy are simply being lazy or immature. They don’t yet value their property the way they will later on when they have to pay for it. For the most part I suggest that parents simply shut the door—unless the room is so bad that it’s a community health hazard.

Some years ago, I knew someone who cut hair for a living. Sometimes, as a favor, he would go to a friend’s house to cut his hair for him. His friend was a bright and articulate man, but his apartment was unimaginably filthy. There was trash on the floor; prehistoric newspapers piled high, and abandoned plates of food everywhere. Here comes the part I’ll never forget: At one point during the visit, a particularly feisty roach landed squarely on the hair cutter’s head. His friend, who was used to it, thought nothing of it and laughed it off! Needless to say, that was his last at-home haircut.

This filth was almost certainly the consequence of severely low self-esteem in a person who simply didn’t feel he deserved any better. It’s an extreme example of what happens when you don’t respect yourself.

Keeping things clean and shiny is not only healthy, but it also might be the beginning of a cure for what emotionally ails you. So break out the Windex and the Pledge! They’re cheaper than Xanax and Prozac, they don’t require a prescription, and they just might help you feel a little better about yourself, your home and all your stuff.