Clean House… Therapy?

What’s not to love about the expression “cleaning house?”

We can take it literally, especially this time of year, as we revel in purging ourselves of dirt, dust, and junk – plunging into Spring cleaning with fervor and self-righteousness.

Don’t we toss off the yoke of Winter – or whatever is bothering us – by throwing open the windows and airing out our rooms?

Isn’t cleaning therapeutic? Or, as the New York Times suggests in “Unhappy? Clean House,” we perk up when we launder the linens, sweep the sun room, and in general – tidy up. And oh by the way, perfecting our environments expedites perfecting our lives – or so we like to tell ourselves.

Cleaning Capers, No More Vapors?

Leading us through highlights and mentions of our 20th century attraction to the minimalist aesthetic, author Will Wiles refers to “domestic perfection,” and challenges our notions equating the clean and stylish home with happiness.

Referring to the early modernists, he writes:

… The better home would lead to better people. Love of purity, in the words of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, “leads to the joy of life: the pursuit of perfection.”

Yes, indeed. We do take pride in our appearances – including where we hang our hats. And who will deny our American aptitude for aspiration, along with a touch of keeping up with the Joneses?

Incidentally, I plead no contest to a dash of this as well; I adore beautiful design, and I am visually hyper-sensitive though not to mess.

It makes for an interesting irony – or collision course? – our obsession with simplifying, and likewise, acquisition. Still, isn’t there value in streamlining our interiors? In periodic purging? In neatening our desks to lighten the emotional load?

Who would disagree with this Psych Central article from Gretchen Rubin?

… when I want to calm myself, or cheer myself up, I often take an hour and clean my office…

The Pick-It-Up Pick-Me-Up

One could easily argue that a quick clean-up results in more efficiency, and therefore alleviates stress. But do we busy (and distract) ourselves with straightened stacks and shiny surfaces?

Of course, in a 24/7 world in which little feels finished, cleaning yields a visible result – albeit temporary – and thus, satisfaction.

But cleaning as therapy? Domestic design as the path to contentment?

I prefer this approach, equating the psychology of Spring cleaning to our emotional interiors in need of attention.

It is easy for most of us to see the clutter in the rooms we inhabit. Too many books, stacks of paper, knick-knacks; some treasure, some trash. Likewise, if we are lucky enough to be able to… we have decorated our rooms to suit us.

But, it is harder to see the rooms that inhabit us… harder still to de-clutter those rooms… Our inner world is often like a house we inherited from our parents, fully furnished and full of their stuff… We walk around in the rooms and barely notice the mess that fills up the house… rules and lists… regrets, resentments, obsessions

Mess Stress

I confess to less stress in a more organized setting. But appealing as “minimal” may be, or even “minimalish” – not only is it a headache to maintain, but a little mess is inevitable in life and for some of us, conducive to creativity.

As for neatening my files, dragging out the vacuum, taking sponge to the granite countertops and cloth to the stainless fridge, I’m more inclined to clean house metaphorically – clearing toxic tricksters from my environment and naysayers from my path.

Mr. Wiles rightly reminds us we’ve somehow imbued our homes with the power to “make us happy,” and cleaning as a therapeutic activity. Yet he juxtaposes our late 20th century penchant for perfect places with a necessary nod to more realistic expectations.

Most of us still find the idea of purging our surroundings to be an overture to more virtuous behavior… A good tidying up is what’s needed, and then the human factor will fall in line…

Minimalism had a short life. Its asceticism was at odds with the rising consumer spending of the latter half of the 20th century. Designers started to preach comfort…

(Hello, Consumerism? More pillows on that sofa, please!)

The Pleasures of Cleaning House

Are my interiors a reflection of my, well… interiors? Sure, but only to a certain degree.

A statement of identity? That, too, though more an indication that I work from home, lead a writer’s life, and kids are part of the lingering landscape.

I certainly feel some sense of accomplishment when I clean, but pleasure? Happiness?

Not so much.

I know women who routinely soap, soak, and scrub their way to feeling better about life. I admit I could likely use a visit by Jeff and Jenny should they re-enter the universe of Interior Therapy, but my home is not “who I am.”

As for de-cluttering in ways I deem important, I struggle as the caretaker of familial possessions, and with an inability to process certain losses and goodbyes. Were I able to do so, this may not prove a path to happiness, but it could result in a measure of relief.

Avoidance Therapy

Returning to the Times article, Mr. Wiles suggests that some of us may throw our energies into domestic duties as a matter of avoidance: cleaning over counseling, refinishing over reflecting.

Noting the ways in which contemporary culture reinforces these behaviors, he concludes:

… the idea that our lives can be perfected by perfecting our environments — lives on in the rhetoric of a thousand marketing departments. It is backed by television’s pop psychology, where the mental health of hoarders is restored by de-cluttering.

Mr. Wiles, I quite agree.

Then again, I’m most likely to scramble for Bounty and Lysol when I don’t care to finish my taxes, to examine my relationships, or inspect the state of anything substantive that might need tending to.

Now… where is my Windex, dammit? And will someone, please, locate my mop?

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© D. A. Wolf



  1. says

    Clean enough to be comfortable is a good place to be on the spectrum in my home. I don’t like to be so clean that family and friends don’t feel comfortable – or that I would have to fuss that something is out of place. Funny how we have certain household cleaning we like to do, and others we avoid as long as is healthy to do so. I like doing dishes. By hand. I like cleaning windows. I like doing laundry. That’s it. The rest is work.

  2. says


    I find cleaning as a meditation of sorts. The vacuumed carpet, mopped floor, and clean counters offer a sense of peace. But with everything, there is balance. Sometimes my closet and desk become too messy, but this physical mess channels creative energy. Contradictions abound everywhere.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Wow, Rudri. You find cleaning to be a meditation? (Could you stop by my house, and stay for say… two weeks, to meditate?)

      Seriously, I find reading the NY Times to be a meditation. Except of course when it leaves me feeling guilty that I am loathe to clean…

  3. says

    I’ve never not had too much stuff. It’s taken me half a century to recognize j’too much’. If there isn’t a place to put things then it is difficult to get to the cleaning result that gives satisfaction. I have been known to do my best cleaning when I was most miserable, figuring if I was already unhappy doing something I disliked couldn’t make me feel any worse.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You make me feel soooooo much better on the Too Much Stuff front, Shelley. (I do agree, there are more challenges with cleaning when the Stuff Department is, um… overstuffed.) Love your approach to the timing of a good tidying up.

  4. Robert says

    I refuse to be a slave to the house. Cleaning and organizing always takes second place to all the duties which move my life forward in more immediate ways. But of course there comes a point when I am indeed a slave because the house is so cluttered and disorganized that I am immobilized. Then it feels very freeing to pause a bit and do trips to the dumpster, the dump, the Container Store,and Goodwill. I literally feel lighter afterward.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I’m inclined toward your approach, Robert… I clean when everything reaches a critical mass and starts to get under my skin…

  5. says

    I really agree with Barbara. To feel good, I need to keep the clutter at bay and yet I am not at all someone who fluffs the pillows just so. I want people to be happy in my home…and that includes me!

  6. says

    For me, clutter is different that dirty. I can live (for a while) in clutter. But when the house is visibly dirty, it tends to bother me. Admittedly, there’s a few homes of friends/family that, after spending time in less than a clean environment, I have the urge to clean my own house!!

  7. Debbie says

    I am an orderly person by nature, and find that cleaning and straightening does make me feel calmer. What I remember however is that my mother also found a clean house therapy to her chaotic, uncontrolable relationship with my father. Unfortunately, we became the recipients of her tirades and Saturday morning rants (she worked full time) about how much of a mess the three of us made and now it was time to clean it up. I remember finding my clutter dumped in a pile in my room and instructions to stay there and “clean it up”. Even the insides of closets, cabinets and dresser drawers had to be in order. When I got to my teens, I was already dealing with my anxieties by cleaning and rearranging the furniture almost weekly in my room. Now as a 50-something, I still find that my stress is relieved by cleaning and straightening, but I am very careful not to take it out on my family. I have forced myself to accept varying degrees of what is clean and leave it at that. I love my husband and kids too much to subject them to that type of control. And they just roll their eyes when I rearrange the furniture.

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