Study: Cleaning every day improves mental health

Fareeha Arshad
Photo by eleonora on Unsplash

She said, grabbing the pillow by my feet and brushing off the crumbs from the sofa seat. She then hurried and picked up the papers and books strewn across the chair and the floor.

I stared at her, baffled.

I wouldn’t have cared if the place were untidy but hygienic enough. But this was downright dirty. Bile rose in my throat when I caught a glimpse of houseflies on the dirty dishes scattered in and around the sink in the kitchen.

I looked at her dumping her bag and dirty laundry together at the corner, and sat on the two seats she had just cleared. She then looked up at me and smiled. I hesitantly returned her smile and slowly sat on the edge of the seat she had vacated for me. I ensured that a minor area of my clothes came in contact with her pile of clothes that sat adjacent to me.

My heart thudded against my chest as I wondered how to ask her politely why she didn’t even bother to clean the place. I recalled the last time I was here to find two mice making love to each other by the same corner where her dirty laundry now sat. I closed my eyes in repulsion, trying to block that vision. Unable to control myself, I found words pouring out of my mouth,

“Do you ever clean the place?”

Her facial expression gave it away. She was embarrassed. I could have framed my question better. But at this moment, I didn’t care. I would rather be not friends with someone who cannot prioritize cleaning their place once in a while.

“I do clean this place once a month or so. I don’t have the time to clean it every day. It’s a sheer waste of time, to be honest.” She said with a light laugh, hiding her embarrassment. “I am like one of those wizards in Harry Potter. You know they were messy too.” She added with a wink. Not waiting for my response, she opened her lunch.

I lost any appetite I had left for food. Begrudgingly I unwrapped my sandwich, took the first bite, and glanced at her again. She didn’t appear affected by the dirt all around her. She didn’t care.

She was wrong: she is not messy. She is lazy.

In case anybody still wondering, I never went back to her place. We are still friends, though. She is still a good person inside, just not a clean person outside.

And yes, her place still haunts me.

Practice cleaning like meditation

In research carried out by scientists at the University of California in 2010, it was discovered that habitual cleaning activity could positively affect the mental health of people who practice it daily. Apart from giving a sense of direct control in your immediate environment, daily cleaning also positively influences your mind into accepting a new habit — thereby making you calmer than before. This is something I got to internalize too.

When I started making space in my activities for daily cleaning, I would only fold my blanket and brush the bed every morning. Just that. Even this significantly improved my mood for the rest of the day. I feel accomplished throughout the day. No matter how bad the day goes, at least I did one thing right — I made my bed.

Habits like these amplify, satisfy, and improve mental health in some way. Let’s look at three reasons why regular cleaning paves the way to mindfulness.

1. You will feel you have control of your immediate surroundings

A 2015 study by researchers at the University of Connecticut concluded that when people are highly stressed, they tend to find solace in repetitive activities like regular cleaning. On the contrary, when people find themselves in a cluttered and disorganized environment, they get easily distracted and cannot complete other tasks.

This is perhaps why you may find yourself stuck on something that demands your attention, yet you can’t process it because you keep thinking about how many days it has been since you last cleaned. Whenever you undergo such an emotional conflict during moments of stress, know that your mind and body are demanding you to bring some order in your chaotic life — that starts with cleaning.

Cleaning, undeniably, will help you gain control over yourself and your immediate environment. If anything, you will feel that you have mastered and hence accomplished something: cleaning.

2. You will see a significant improvement in your mood and reduce your anxiety

Another recent study done was done to understand the link between washing dishes and mindfulness. During the investigation, fifty-one students were exposed to a mindful dishwashing practice and were asked to recall their experience. It was concluded that students who were mindful while washing the dishes experienced a significant reduction in nervousness and showed positive effects like mental inspiration.

Another related study discovered that cleaning sheets before sleeping reduced anxiety and improved the overall quality of sleep. When you have a good night’s sleep, you will feel well-rested, improving your mood for the rest of the day. Similar conclusions have been shown by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. They concluded that physical work put in while cleaning and the guaranteed results of a cleaner home contribute towards stress and anxiety reduction.

3. You will find an increase in your ability to focus on most tasks

Whenever my table is messy and dirty (which rarely happens), I cannot focus — I keep staring at the pen standing in front of me because the pens are strewn across the table, the papers are out of the files, books aren’t where they are supposed to be. My brain stops processing until I sort the table how I like it.

I thought I had some obsessive-compulsive disorder until I read the research published in the Journal of Neuroscience. As per the study, people who are organized and work in a clean environment tend to be less distracted and, therefore, more productive.

So, if you have trouble focusing lately, you might want to try cleaning up your place — or at least the table where you work. It won’t take more than five-seven minutes to sort it. You can try cleaning it up with a timer if you fear you don’t have ‘enough time’. I assure you, those seven minutes spent cleaning your desk will save a lot of time and help you focus on the task better.

P.S. I hate cleaning too

On weekends, I feel like lying on my bed throughout the day and doing nothing — like nothing at all — especially not cleaning. I hate cleaning my house on weekends. The process became cumbersome and tedious if I didn’t clean it throughout the week.

That’s why I never clean during the weekends. Or even if I do, I spend less than ten minutes in the household and cleaning chores. To have a relaxing, cleaning-free, and equally tidy weekend, I make it a point to clean the house on all the other days during the week except the weekends. Trust me; it’s not all that difficult.

I have allotted my time for twenty to thirty minutes for cleaning every day. My cleaning schedule is divided into two parts: some cleaning activities that I do daily and there are a few activities that I repeat once a week.

For instance, I wash all the dishes after every meal, wipe the bathroom floors and the wet counters every time I leave the washroom, wipe the kitchen counters and the dining table after every meal, broom or vacuum the kitchen and other heavily used floors every day. I do these tasks daily. I even make sure to wipe the kitchen appliances immediately after usage.

While tasks like dusting, wiping mirrors all around the house, vacuuming or cleaning the carpets and mopping the floors — I do these once a week. Also, I thoroughly clean the bathroom and take care of laundry weekly. I don’t cover all these tasks in a single day. I space these out equally throughout the week to reduce the mental burden and save time.

If there is a golden rule that has helped me keep on top of my cleaning habit and has helped me save a lot of time while cleaning. It is something that I learnt from my mum:

Always keep the things back from the place where you picked them up.

This rule has not just helped me save time but also saved me from many unwanted troubles of not being able to find something when needed. Plus, sometimes, when there is an unexpected electricity cut, I know exactly where to find the candles without the help of my phone’s flashlight.

Parting words

The next time you feel you don't have time and don't want to clean your home and yet plan on inviting a friend over, here is a tip: please don't.

Let me remind you again: you have the same hours as I do. You are only lazy and are mentally overburdened by your habitual procrastination. To gain control over your life, start cleaning. This is one task entirely in your hands.

If you don't know where to start, take a couple of minutes from your schedule and only make your bed daily. Then pick up from there.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State

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