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home and the extended-self: exploring associations between clutter and wellbeing: rogers & hart, 2021

Why did we research this topic?
I believe that home – how we create and experience home – is underestimated and overlooked when it comes to wellbeing. As a Professional Organiser I see as many positive outcomes in my clients as I do in their homes: I see their shoulders relax. They report feeling better. They talk about leading richer, more meaningful lives with more ease.

I came to my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology determined to research the wellbeing effects of being on top of clutter. I wanted to find out if these positive outcomes I see in clients are universal.

How did we get people to do it?
The more people who take part in research like this, the more meaningful the data outcomes. I stepped well out of my comfort zone and made a film asking people to contribute. Friends, family and colleagues shared the film on social media. We were amazed and delighted by how many people completed the surveys. We were able to analyse data from 1,111 people.

Home is a platform for wellbeing
What do we mean by ‘home and the extended-self?’

Home is a sum of places and possessions. It’s like the ideal parent we all wanted. It has the capacity to nurture, protect and calm us. It can be a safe place to return to. Our ability and tendency to make a home which is ‘like us’ varies and can be strengthened and developed. This ability has been referred to as ‘psychological home’.

‘Self-extension’ is a nod to Russell Belk. He wrote a seminal paper in the 1980’s on the meaning of possessions. ‘Home self-extension’ was the catch-all title we used for the four surveys our participants completed:

  1. clutter levels (objective clutter)
  2. personal experiences of clutter (subjective clutter)
  3. desire / tendency to create home (psychological home)
  4. how often they declutter (decluttering habit)

Participants also completed the PERMA-profiler – a wellbeing survey that categorises wellbeing into components of

  • Positive emotions (joy, happiness),
  • Engagement (interest, involvement and flow),
  • Relationships (positive connections with others, communities and societies),
  • Meaning in life
  • Accomplishment (having and achieving meaningful goals).

PERMA also measures negative emotions, health and loneliness.

What did the data reveal?
There are three important, useful findings:

  1. Clutter is subjective – it wasn’t how much or how little clutter people had that predicted their wellbeing, it was how they felt about it. (Objective clutter did not predict wellbeing).
  2. Feeling good about home clutter and the ability to create home (psychological home) explained almost a quarter of the differences in overall wellbeing across the participants.*
  3. Specifically, across these participants, feeling good about home clutter and the ability to create home (psychological home) explained 30% of the differences in ‘Accomplishment’ (having and achieving meaningful goals) and 23% of the differences in ‘Positive Emotion’ (joy, happiness).*

What does that mean for us?
This confirms that paying attention to our clutter, learning to create a home that feels more ‘like me’ is a Good Thing. It means something particularly relevant in this current time of being at home during the pandemic. This research indicates creating home will make us feel better.

It isn’t uncommon to feel overwhelmed by the possessions in our home and the way they’re organised. You can tackle this overwhelm yourself by breaking it down into achievable tasks. Or you could employ a Professional Organiser like me to be your ally in the process. And remember, this is work that we can do together, online and see immediate rewards.

How can these results help people create home and/or declutter?
We now can be assured that making time and spending money to create home is just as important as getting a good night’s sleep and taking exercise.

There are infinite ways to go about making our homes more ‘like me’. Because of the subjective nature of clutter, not all the methods and advice available in the lifestyle press will resonate. It’s important to approach this from a place of no judgement on ourselves or others. Perhaps one place for you to start might be a 10-minute job?

Academic Implications:
We gently challenge existent theories of clutter being maladaptive; drawing attention to its subjective nature, offering a refined definition of clutter:

“Clutter is a subjective experience of possessions (material or other)
that inhibits the curation of self-identity at home.”

We hope other clutter researchers will build on this work. Like all research, there are limitations that could be addressed, as well as the notion of testing before/after wellbeing measures of creating home.

Implications for Professional Organisers:
The study reinforces the need for individual, non-judgemental, person centred approaches to clutter overwhelm. When it comes to tackling clutter, Professional Organisers could benefit from positive psychology’s offering of tried and tested interventions and activities that increase goal accomplishment and positive emotion.

Acknowledgements:
My academic supervisor, Dr Rona Hart, has been key in making this research happen – and pivotal in the publishing process. I am both indebted and proud that our paper is published in both our names.

We couldn’t have carried out this research without the kindness of the participants who gave their time and their responses. Thank you. You know who you are!

Credits:
Mono print of home: Maisie Mo Harrison
Film to encourage participants made with (phenomenal) help from Tilo Flache

* these are reports of regression analyses. Percentages like this are considered ‘substantial’. For an in depth examination of the results see the full article in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. If you don’t have full access, there is a proof on ResearchGate

“Since my first session with Caroline, the wisdom she shared with me has echoed in my mind, and her gentle encouragement has enabled me to take positive action over the last 6 months. Caroline has helped me transform the house into our forever home!”

– juliet, weybridge

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