The Science of Spring Cleaning

“Cleaning Supplies at the 99¢ only store” by futurowoman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Last week, I decided to paint my bathroom.

It seemed like a simple enough project. It’s the smallest room in the house, so it couldn’t possibly take long, I reasoned, to clean out and organize its cabinets and closet, then scrub, spackle, and sand the walls. And a fresh coat of paint would make it feel so clean: the pay-off was huge.

Days later, I’m still working on it; for such a small room, it really has been a disproportionate amount of work. But I’m doing myself a favor, and not just because at the end of it all I’ll have a new and improved place to shower.

I’ve leaned into this year’s spring cleaning itch with a vengeance, and I’m feeling what Katherine Milkman, behavioral economist and Wharton School professor, calls the “fresh start effect.”

Spring is what Milkman refers to as 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.

There are other temporal landmarks, too. (New Year’s is a big one, hence all the resolutions.) But there’s a reason people tend to start diets or exercise programs on the first of the month, or at the beginning of the week. And there’s a reason the first warm days of March made me want to paint my bathroom.

In other words, we get the urge to spring clean because spring in particular feels like a new lease on life. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s a time of renewal in the world around us. Seedlings emerge, trees explode into bloom, and our yards are full of baby animals. Of course spring seems like a fresh start.

And increased motivation and the satisfaction of an accomplished goal aren’t the only positive effects of spring cleaning. 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.

A 2017 study in Current Psychology found that clutter led to a significant decrease in life satisfaction, across age groups but especially among older adults. Another, in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that people who felt their home was cluttered had much higher levels of cortisol — the body’s primary stress hormone — throughout the day. The study included men and women, but women were far more likely to both say their homes were cluttered, and have more cortisol as a result.

A survey from the same year found that a less-than-spotless home is a stress trigger for nearly half of all Americans. In short, if you feel like your house is disorderly or unfinished, you’re going to be more anxious.

That’s why dealing with it feels so good; consider the recent national obsession with organizing expert Marie Kondo’s ruthless decluttering system. Her book, and later Netflix series, led countless people to scour their homes, ditching everything that failed to “spark joy.”

I haven’t gone that far, but I did toss a whole trash bag full of expired makeup, half-used shampoo that gave me dandruff, and several towels that were more tatter than terry. I’ve got plans to ride this seasonal motivation wave as long as it lasts; my sights are set on the kitchen next. And whether I’ll reap all the psychological benefits of spring cleaning remains to be seen. But at least my bathroom will be a lovely shade of green.

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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