Interviews With An Expert #11: The Psychology And Science Behind Spring Cleaning
The History Of Spring Cleaning
The practice of spring cleaning is a time-honored ritual that’s rooted in cultural tradition. It dates back to the days when homes were heated by wood and lit by lanterns that left layers of soot on every surface. When spring arrived, it was time to open up the windows and doors, pull out the rugs and bedding to beat away the dust, and scrub the floors and windows until they shined.
Beyond the U.S., many countries have well-established annual cleaning traditions. For example, Persian New Year’s Day, called Nowruz, is celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox, which marks the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The day involves a practice known as khaneh-tekan, which literally means “shaking house.” Every item in the home from the furniture to the silverware is cleaned. It is even common for houses to get a fresh coat of paint.
While many cultures practice an annual cleaning, not all occur in spring. For example, in Guatemala the practice of quema del diablo takes place at the beginning of December. The phrase translates to “burning of the devil,” and reflects the belief that Satan lurks in dirt and junk.
Over the years, ‘spring cleaning’ has become somewhat an automatic ritual. You awaken from a winter hibernation of couch surfing the cold nights away; you turn off the heater, put out the fire and take a good look at the interior of your home which has been locked up for the best part of three months. However, this incredibly important task is about more than just throwing open the windows and letting the sunshine in.
Psychologists agree that our moods can be boosted by “mastery activities,” referring to tasks that aren’t particularly fun but whose outcomes provide a sense of accomplishment that elevates our spirits. Case in point? Cleaning. A unique comfort sets in knowing a clean environment surrounds you.
Seasonal Motivation Wave
Spring cleaning relays a “fresh start effect”. We all know that sensation following a regular cleaning session. It almost feels as though a weight has been lifted off of your shoulders.
Katherine Milkman, behavioral economist and Wharton School professor, calls Spring a “temporal landmark” — a time when people are most motivated to set and achieve goals. In a study, Milkman and her fellow researchers found that temporal landmarks get people moving on things that will better them or their lives because the landmark represents a line between a person’s past and their future. There’s a near universal desire for the future to be better than the past.
In other words, we get the urge to spring clean because spring in particular feels like a new lease on life. There’s something about a deep clean and purge of dust, dirt and clutter that inspires a sense of rebirth, which must be why we traditionally tackle our clutter in the spring, as new buds bloom and newborn creatures scurry.
While spring cleaning has the obvious benefits of an organized closet, a sparkling counter top, and possibly more open spaces, it’s also associated with increased motivation and the satisfaction of an accomplished goal. So plan to ride this seasonal motivation wave as long as it lasts; toss expired makeup, half-used shampoo, towels that are more tatter than terry. Deep-clean the closets. Declutter the drawers. Shift that vacuum into overdrive. There are few things more satisfying than the completion of a proper spring cleaning.
Why else does cleaning make us feel so good?
Well, for starters, multiple studies find that clutter really does a number on our mental health, and getting rid of it can be both cathartic and a long-term stress reliever. In a 2009 study, levels of cortisol— the “stress hormone”—were higher in moms whose home environments were cluttered. Others have found that clearing clutter from our work environment (which is most likely your home right now!) also results in the improved ability to focus and process information.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), a good spring cleaning can help you breathe better. If you’re prone to allergies or an asthma-attack sufferer, don’t assume pollen is the primary offender. Powerful asthma triggers, such as dust and pet dander, float on small air currents and settle on every surface in your home. A thorough cleaning of your home can help eliminate allergens and keep new ones from coming in.
Like any physical activity, spring cleaning can burn calories. Now, strolling around the house for 10 minutes with a feather duster won’t do much, but 30 minutes or more of moderate activity like vacuuming or scrubbing floors, can add up. The more you move, the more calories you’ll burn — and you’ll reduce fatigue and increase your overall energy levels in the process.
Take comfort in knowing that your home does not have to be pristine for optimal living and working. The key is finding what environment is most efficient and productive for you. Whether you’ll reap all the psychological benefits of spring cleaning remains to be seen, but at least you will have more closet space…reason enough to try a spring cleaning.
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