The Costs of Clutter: Why Needless Accumulation Harms Us

Clutter has a wide range of costs for our well-being. Now, more than ever, we need to understand those costs and take action.

Between 2001 and 2005, a team of social scientists conducted one of the most well-known and extensive studies of modern family life.

For 4 years, a team of researchers from the Center on the Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) were like flies on the walls of 32 average middle-class homes in the United States.

They photographed rooms, they videoed how families behaved, they asked questions, they took detailed notes. And when they couldn’t observe and record in person, they even asked the families to use video cameras to record home diaries.

Over 4 years, the pool of data collected was inevitably vast. So vast, in fact, that it took a further 7 years for the CELF team to fully analyse it. But once they had put the data together, some clear pictures of modern family life began to emerge.

The researchers found that families spent remarkably little time in outdoor areas (less than 15 minutes on average each week). They also found that homes were surprisingly child-centric, even in the main communal areas.

But perhaps their most shocking finding was the sheer scale of stuff filling these homes.

On average, each family had 39 pairs of shoes, 90 DVDs, 139 toys, 212 CDs and 438 books and magazines. 90% of the families had so much stuff that they resorted to storing even more in their garages, leaving no space for a car.

Not only was the total volume of stuff astounding, but items were scattered throughout homes. This wasn’t structured accumulation. It was disorganised in excess.

In short, the families were in a “clutter crisis”. And by extrapolation, the average middle-class family was in a clutter crisis too.

The Clutter Crisis and Its Problems

Granted, there are some sharp generalisations here. 32 family homes can’t definitively tell us that that other homes follow the same patterns. But these family homes were selected because they met a range of criteria to produce the best possible representation of a family home in the United States.

Indeed, other research seems to point at a clutter crisis that runs further than just the United States. A study by Oxfam suggested that Brits own so many unworn shoes that lined up heel to toe they would stretch around the entire world. Meanwhile, Brits’ unused CDs and DVDs would apparently stretch 7,641 miles into space if piled on top of each other.

Of course, you might ask, so what? Why does it matter if we have all this unused stuff? What harm does it do to anyone?

There are broader environmental and socio-economic answers to these questions. There are also substantial differences in accumulation in developed and developing economies. But these are debates for another time.

A better question for now might be, what harm does our clutter do directly to us? And as it turns out, there are some compelling and surprising answers to this question.

#1: The Emotional Cost of Clutter

In his book of the same name, James Wallman explains why our clutter crisis is giving rise to several adverse health effects, which he calls a process of Stuffocation. (Side note: I recommend this book for a more comprehensive overview of the CELF study and the rising importance of experientialism.)

One of the most important of these is that our clutter is likely stressing us out. In the CELF study, the researchers found that as women talked about their homes, those that used words like “disorganised”, “messy” and “cluttered” had higher cortisol levels than those using more neutral or flattering language.

Scientists measure cortisol because it provides an indication of stress levels. A typical cortisol pattern is high at the start of the day and then drops sharply throughout the day, in line with our circadian rhythms. Shallower cortisol patterns are a sign that we are not managing stress well. They are also associated with a wide range of ailments and ultimately higher mortality risk.

Bottom line (and forgive the morbid turn this is taking): shallow cortisol patterns indicate a greater risk of stress, depression, physical illness, and death.

The conclusion, therefore, is that those women living in clutter were more stressed and therefore at greater risk of these problems. But there is an inevitable chicken-and-egg question. We don’t know for certain that clutter causes stress, or if stress causes clutter. It may be both.

There is, however, enough evidence to conclude that once we’ve provided for our basic needs, unnecessary accumulation doesn’t make men or women happier on average. Material purchases provide a hedonic spring forward before the treadmill quickly brings us back to our stationary emotional reality.

A safe conclusion: Clutter certainly doesn’t serve us emotionally. In all probability, it hinders us emotionally.

#2: The Financial Cost of Clutter

Of course, the cost of clutter isn’t just emotional. Filling our homes costs hard-earned cash. And as we accumulate more and more clutter, our homes expand with it.

Over the last half century, the average size of new houses in the US has increased by 1,000 square feet and living space per person has nearly doubled. In the UK, while the average size of property has decreased, the average number of rooms per person has increased sharply over a similar period. Brits now have nearly 2.5 rooms per person, up from 1.5 rooms in the 1960s.

In other words, we are occupying more space than ever with more stuff than ever. Combined with a rising population and housing supply that can’t keep pace, the long-term result is sharply increasing household debt to service this additional space.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that additional space. In fact, it’s in large part a reflection of increased prosperity and reduced fertility rates. But it costs money, and as the leading cause of stress, that matters.

What’s more, we’ve not even considered the cost of acquiring and servicing our clutter yet – merely the space it occupies.

Flexible financing options have seen household debt excluding mortgages soar in the developed world. Our thirst for material accumulation is the powerhouse behind this increase.

Homes have more TVs than people. We buy more clothes than ever before. We buy our kids more toys than ever before. Some of us have accumulated so much that we’ve resorted to paying for self-storage away from our homes.

#3: The Temporal Cost of Clutter

The costs don’t stop there either. The more clutter we have, the more time we spend tidying, cleaning, and maintaining it.

We become servants to our clutter instead of servants to our well-being. We work to accumulate things we don’t need, and then we use our time off to work servicing those things we don’t need. This carries dangerous opportunity costs.

Servicing our clutter eats into time that could be spent with our children, friends, and family. It robs us of time that could be spent looking after our health. It denies us of time that could be spent bettering ourselves and learning about the world.

And while we’ve focused predominantly on physical clutter here, it’s worth also reflecting on our digital clutter.

A full inbox and a barrage of notifications weigh on the mind with similar force. Just as servicing our physical clutter carries opportunity costs, servicing unnecessary digital clutter carries similar opportunity costs.

In short, unnecessary clutter, in whatever form we find it, can get in the way of doing the things we value the most.

The Solution: A Minimalist Mindset

By now you should realise that clutter can create a perfect storm. First, clutter, in and of itself, may increase stress and anxiety. Second, accumulating that clutter usually comes with a financial burden, which may also increase stress and anxiety. And finally, maintaining and being distracted by our clutter can deny us of the very things that can help us to manage that stress and anxiety.

It’s a three-pronged attack. An upward spiral in stuff, but a downward spiral in health.

This problem might sound “first-world” in nature, and to some extent it is. But the dangers of clutter aren’t confined to the clothes, toys, and televisions that developed nations buy to fill expanding houses.

Clutter isn’t a problem of privilege. It can affect anyone in different ways. And it’s my belief that we can all benefit from managing it.

The solution is to slowly cultivate a minimalist mindset, to remove the things that unnecessarily distract us from the things that matter the most. Not in one fell swoop, but gradually.

First, we recognise the costs of clutter. Then we move to reduce them.

New to minimalism? I recommend reading this article next, which explains why a minimalist mindset is about so much more than just your stuff.

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