The dirt on being clean

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“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

You’ve likely heard this ancient proverb before—perhaps from a parent nagging you to clean your room as a child. But what are the actual benefits of keeping a clean space?

It turns out, there are many. Your parents may have been onto something!

Living and working in a clean, organized space can lead to lower stress[1] and increased cooperation, generosity[2], and productivity[3]. People in clean rooms even make healthier food choices than those in cluttered rooms[4].

Researchers have also found that disorderly spaces encourage rule-breaking and unconventionality, while orderly spaces encourage rule-following and morally good behaviors[4].

This is why you are more likely to clean up your crumbs when eating in a clean kitchen than when you are in a sloppy one[4], and why people are more likely to litter in an area where there is graffiti[5]. But it also explains why some creative geniuses are at their most productive in messy environments[4].

Despite the benefits of living in a spare, uncluttered environment, some of us choose to let things accumulate until we have to lock our closets to keep them from bursting open.

Why are some of us drawn towards a more cluttered lifestyle?

One reason is that we become attached to our material possessions. While this can happen with anything you own[6], the more an item is linked to your sense of self, the harder it is to give it away[7].

For example, you might not have use for a ratty old t-shirt you got in college, but if that t-shirt takes you back to your days on the basketball team, the jokes you shared with your teammates, and the workouts you endured together while you wore it, it will have a lot more meaning.

We’re also more likely to develop an emotional attachment to belongings when we feel lonely[8]. Keeping personal items around can help you feel more secure, surrounded by memories and a reinforced sense of self.

If you want to keep a tidier living space, but have trouble parting with possessions, what can you do?

One possibility is to make a digital photo album of old memories, so that you can relive them whenever you want. This will free you to part with physical items that are playing the same role in your life.

If this is too difficult, you can try a different approach: store your less frequently-used items in bins or storage units that are out of the way. This way, you don’t have to toss items that carry a lot of meaning—but you also gain the benefits of having order in your home.


1. Saxbe, D.E., & Repetti, R. (2009). No place like home: Home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 71-81.
2. Liljenquist, K., Zhong, C. B., & Galinsky, A. D. (2010). The smell of virtue clean scents promote reciprocity and charity. Psychological Science, 21, 381-383.
3. Chae, B., & Zhu, R. (2014). Environmental disorder leads to self-regulatory failure. Journal of Consumer Research, 40, 1203-1218.
4. Vohs, K.D., Redden, J.P., & Rahinel, R. (2013). Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychological Science, 24, 1860-1867.
5. Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S., & Steg, L. (2008). The spreading of disorder. Science, 322, 1681–1685.
6. Morewedge, C.K., & Giblin, C.E. (2015). Explanations of the endowment effect: an integrative review. Trends in Cognitive Science, 19, 339-348.
7. Ferraro, R., Escalas, J.E., & Bettman, J.R. (2010). Our possessions, our selves: Domains of self-worth and the possession–self link. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 21, 169-177.
8. Lastovicka, J., & Sirianni, N. (2011). Truly, madly, deeply: Consumers in the throes of material possession love. Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 323-342.