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no place like home: home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol: saxbe & repetti, 2010.

What kind of language might you use if you took someone on a tour around your home? Adjectives like disorganised, restful, calming – cluttered? What other sorts of words? (Hopefully you wouldn’t use that word “should”).

This American study took a hard look at words used by thirty working parents, all heterosexual, describing their homes in video tours. The authors categorised these words into ‘restorative home words’ (eg. calming, soothing, peaceful, descriptions of gardens and plants) and ‘stressful home words’ (eg. disarray, disorganised, descriptions of repairs that need doing).

At the same time, the researchers measured the couples’ cortisol levels. (Hence my accountability partner always refers to this paper as ‘the spit one’). They revealed some interesting results that, in my opinion, are often mis-quoted and misunderstood; this is not an academic paper concluding that clutter causes depression.

The participants in this study who showed low mood, measured by their cortisol levels, were likely to use more ‘stressful home words’ describing their homes than ‘restorative home words’. Although ‘clutter’ would come under the stressful home word category, so did words like ‘messy’, ‘remodel’, ‘expansion’. Whilst there’s an indication of a relationship between stressful home words and low mood, to interpret a causal relationship between clutter and depression is an overstatement.

What’s interesting is that there was a difference between men and women. The men in this study didn’t have as strong relationships between low mood and stressful home words as the women.

“Ha!”, the confirmation biased among us might say, “I always knew men and women react differently to clutter and disorder at home”. And again, without more research in this specific area, we’d be over inferring. However, isn’t it interesting that these couples share the same home, yet respond differently? Surely an indication that people respond differently to their homes and what’s in them? Evidence that clutter is subjective perhaps?

Although you can read this paper via a link from the first author’s website, it isn’t open access.

Here’s the abstract:
The way people describe their homes may reflect whether their time at home feels restorative or stressful.

This article uses linguistic analysis software (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) to analyze 60 dual-income spouses’ self-guided home tours by calculating the frequency of words describing clutter, a sense of the home as unfinished, restful words, and nature words.

Based on a principal components analysis, the former two categories were combined into the variable stressful home and the latter two into restorative home.

Over 3 weekdays following the home tours, wives with higher stressful home scores had flatter diurnal slopes of cortisol, a profile associated with adverse health outcomes, whereas women with higher restorative home scores had steeper cortisol slopes. These results held after controlling for marital satisfaction and neuroticism.

Women with higher stressful home scores had increased depressed mood over the course of the day, whereas women with higher restorative home scores had decreased depressed mood over the day.

“Caroline was wonderful at making it fun and focused, and being there when difficult emotions came up. With her support I cleared a lot, and the move with my partner was much easier as a result.”

– claudia, london

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