It’s fitting that Netflix released Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on the first day of a new year. In the series, Kondo, an organizing consultant and worldwide phenomenon, goes into messy homes and shares the principles of her highly praised 2014 book on “art of decluttering.” Though she’s not scientifically trained, her system resembles what psychology researchers recommend to boost well-being.
Her KonMari Method teaches that tidying up should be done categorically. You begin with clothes, then books, papers, and miscellaneous items, finishing off with sentimental things. Once one finishes tidying by category — not location — they must ask the final question: Does this item spark joy? If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, it goes in the donation bin.
Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at DePaul University who studies procrastination, the meaning of home, and how those concepts intertwine. A cluttered home, he maintains, is not a place where people can thrive.
“Clutter is not a good thing,” Ferrari tells Inverse. “People ask me about the positive side of clutter and I say, ‘There isn’t any positive side.’”
The problem, Ferrari explains, isn’t so much the things people have. It’s their attachment to an overabundance of things. His studies have demonstrated that people with clutter have a problem making decisions; they seem to be trapped in a circle. Decisional procrastinators report that they have too much clutter, which interferes with their quality of life, and clutter, in turn, is the best predictor of procrastination.
In a 2016 study, Ferrari and frequent collaborator Catherine Roster, Ph.D., solicited self-reported responses from 1,394 people who sought advice on how to deal with clutter from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. The data revealed having an attachment to a physical home and identifying with personal possessions were linked to a greater sense of psychological home — the idea that home is an emotional state that you carry with you. These positive effects, however, were negated by having an excess of things:
Our findings demonstrated that clutter can undermine the comfortable everyday experience of at-homeness people take for granted until clutter and disorganization erode their ability to find things, move safely through their home, and use spaces as intended.
“We have found that clutter decreases your sense of home and it decreases your life satisfaction,” Ferrari says. “Things that make you happy are important, but the question is: Do you really need so many of them?”
One of the best pieces of advice Ferrari says he’s received from decluttering experts is: Do not touch the items. That may seem counterintuitive to a person moving through their own home, categorically assembling their belongings, but the truth is that we might all need our own version of Marie Kondo — a person to come inside our crowded spaces and be an impartial judge.
“Experts say that once you touch an item, you’ve become personally attached to it,” Ferrari explains. “What you need instead is someone else to hold it up and say, ‘Okay, we’ve organized, we see that you’ve got 14 pairs of black pants. Do you really need this one?’”
While Kondo’s trademark challenge is deciding whether or not something “sparks joy,” Ferrari cautions that joy is not happiness, and happiness can be transient. We don’t need an overabundance of things when donating your multitudes can spark joy for someone else.
“Clutter can interfere with your life,” Ferrari says. “People identify with their items and letting go is tough for people. But I think there is a limit to how much we can have.”