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A Mental Health Boost That May Be Better Than Therapy?

Find out how you, too, can reap the benefits.

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illustration of woman sitting in living room with a book and watching outdoors through window
Jordan Sondler
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I tackle most household chores without complaint, but I don’t do toilets. I will, however, watch someone else clean one for up to three minutes at a time, provided they’re using an ungodly amount of colorful products.

If you want to know why, do a search for “satisfying TikTok toilet cleaning compilation” and be prepared to lose several hours of your life. One video — featuring a pair of white-gloved hands sopping up a toilet with a sponge and layering in whole bottles of toilet bowl cleaner, powdered cleanser, crumbled urinal cakes and even shaving cream — has racked up more than 159,000 views and thousands of comments. The videos are often, frustratingly, posted in sequence, forcing you to go through two or more videos of product cramming before you can satisfy your burning desire to see the ultimate #spongesqueeze and pristine white bowl.

Clearly, a whole lot of people have a fascination with cleaning as a process, even if they don’t enjoy the act itself. And an emerging body of research shows the reason: Cleaning, and neat, organized environments, may contribute to physical and mental health.

“It’s one of those things you get this instant gratification from,” says Brandi Winch, the owner of Homemaid Cleaning Service in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “People love a transformation.” And while she points out that any video that encourages mixing cleaning supplies makes her cringe — it can be downright dangerous to combine some of the chemicals in certain cleaners — she understands the appeal. “Cleaning gives you a shot of happy chemicals,” she explains, referring to the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine. “And when you watch someone else do it, you can skip the three-hour process and just get that hit.”

Love it or hate it, cleaning has been linked to greater well-being in several ways. Find out how to reap the benefits.

Buffing floors, and your body

Household chores haven’t always been recognized as “physical activity” on par with going to the gym — the kind of workout that’s recommended to reduce the risk of chronic diseases as you age — but that thinking is starting to change.

A large international study that looked at data from over 130,000 people found that not only it doesn’t matter whether you log the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week on a bike or by doing laundry, but most people are much more likely to achieve this level of activity from household chores, making cleaning the more effective workout strategy. And getting those 30 minutes of activity a day was shown to slash the risk of death from any cause by 28 percent. In that light, a little dusting, vacuuming and, yes, even toilet scrubbing seem like a win-win.

Whether you think of these chores as exercise can make a difference too.

Researchers studying hotel maids, who spent their days doing arduous physical activity they did not consider exercise, told half the group that they far exceeded the U.S. surgeon general’s recommendation for daily activity. The researchers then checked back a month later. The maids who had been told they were exercising daily saw a 10 percent drop in blood pressure, while those who continued to do the same job without believing that they were exercising did not.

Past research has shown that people who live in messy homes have higher rates of insomnia and are up to 77 percent more likely to be obese.

When researchers looked at various factors affecting the health of African American adults living in the St Louis area, they found that how tidy their living space was appeared to have the greatest impact on physical-activity levels and the risk of cardiovascular disease, with neater homes correlating to better overall health. It’s unclear, though, if neat people tend to move more or more physically active people tend to be tidier, and just how much of the association is due to the physical activity of cleaning or its mental effects.

Cleanse your mind

Cleaning may have a whole host of mental benefits as well. According to past research at UCLA, those who live in messy homes, particularly women, have measurably higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

One theory, developed by Princeton researchers after observing that even small amounts of clutter made it harder for people to focus on a specific task, is that messes distract us because our brains consider them unfinished business. “Whether you realize it or not, every single item in your environment is a piece of information your brain is processing,” Winch says. That stack of unopened mail? A reminder that bills need to be paid. A sweatshirt thrown over a chair is a visual cue that laundry needs to be done. With so many things on your mind, no wonder it’s hard to concentrate in messy rooms.

Several studies have linked chronically messy living spaces to increased depression and anxiety, and some have even found that when living conditions improved, so did the mental health of residents. Plus, living in neat, well-organized spaces has been linked to positive emotions.

Caroline Rogers, a professional organizer and academic researcher, observed these effects so often in her clients that she decided to study the subject. “Our possessions are, to an extent, extensions of ourselves,” she notes. “So, the way they’re arranged in our home may spill over to our attitude. A disorganized desk says you’re feeling disorganized, while an orderly one says you’re really on top of things.” Her research found that how people felt about the state of their homes positively predicted well-being.

Interestingly, Rogers’ research showed that, as with the hotel maids in the earlier study, mindset matters. The amount of clutter in a home was less important than how the inhabitants felt about the mess. In other words, women who were bothered by the state of their home were more affected than those who didn’t care, even when the two homes were objectively equally as cluttered — indicating that “Bless this mess” may in fact be a good mental health strategy.

The act of cleaning may be stress relieving too. It releases dopamine and physically works out aggression And researchers at the University of Connecticut found that during stressful times, people fall back on rituals like cleaning because it gives them a feeling of control. This makes some sense; maybe you can’t make your in-laws act reasonably, but you can at least shine the silverware until it gleams.

Starting clean

“There is no doubt in my mind that there is a strong connection between your inner world and your immediate outer world — your home,” Winch says. “Cleaning your outer world will have an immediate positive impact on your inner world.”

Rogers agrees: “Your home is a platform for your well-being, and it should be taken as seriously as being mindful about other things.”

So, how to get started? Rogers suggests a 10-minute job as a warm-up. Sometimes just spending 10 minutes organizing a junk drawer can get you in the mood to clean.

Winch, on the other hand, suggests waiting until you’re in the mood or, if you don’t feel like cleaning, leaving it to the pros. “There’s no reason for anyone not to have a house cleaner,” she says. “Housecleaning is the cheapest time you can buy.” She notes that often, people talk themselves out of hiring someone because they feel ashamed and guilty for not handling such basic household tasks themselves. “I want to encourage people to throw that idea in the trash,” she recommends. “If cleaning is not at the top of your list because you don't enjoy it, you should outsource it and replace it with something you enjoy doing.”

Just think of it as an investment in self-care. I did. And now I can watch twice as many toilet-scrubbing videos.

 
Do you find cleaning to be a mental health boost? Let us know in the comments below.

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