The home, the space in which we live and breathe, represents far more than meets the eye. It’s a convergence of science and art — where we keep our belongings and maintain order (or lack thereof). It’s where we retreat at the end of a work day and invite friends to join, and it’s where we hope to feel most at peace. So, understanding how our housekeeping habits affect our well-being, from stress levels to self-awareness, is a critical agent for optimal living. We interviewed three experts to better understand the big question: Why exactly do we pursue the endless journey of making a home? Ph.D. and professor Samuel Gosling, author and psychotherapist Amy Morin, and executive therapeutic coach Lisa Pepper-Satkin help explain the psychology of our space.
As much as we discuss design trends and rising artists, what we don’t always acknowledge is that home decor is actually *bring in the lab coats* a thing of science. The paintings on our walls and books on our shelves represent an inner progression — an evolution of interests, values, and intellect. Psychologist Sam Gosling, an expert in analyzing our *stuff* (cue the panic), states that we actually leave traces of our psyche throughout our homes. “We can organize the things in our houses into categories,” Gosling says. “The first, is identity claims. Photographs, music records, the art we choose — these are the items that we believe represent our values.” The expert adds that, as humans, being understood is one of our most prioritized subconscious needs, so we decorate our homes to reflect the self.
Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, also expands on the meaning of our stuff. “You can tell what you build your self-esteem around based on the things you hold onto,” Morin said. “If you have your diplomas and awards framed, your intellect might be what you value. If it’s sports trophies, maybe your athletic tendencies have built you.” According to Morin and Gosling, by taking a mindful look around our homes, we can grasp a more thorough understanding of our own ethical natures.
In addition to the meaning of our stuff, the experts agreed upon the presence of underlying emotional nuances of our personal spaces. Gosling adds that we present items in our home also through deliberate choice of emotional surfacers. He clarifies, “I like to call them thought and feeling regulators.” The professor explained that we choose these items to evoke positive emotions. “The concept of personal space and how we dress it is not this whimsical idea about where you live. It has a profound effect on you.”
Whether a specific color swatch for a living room, a candle, or a diffuser, we invite these items into our home to facilitate feelings. For example, houseplants make a space feel fresh and lively, and thus, they make the individual feel better, too. (Not to mention, studies show plants eliminate harmful toxins by releasing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide.) While we may put plants in our home for aesthetic reasons, there is also a psychological motive. We lean towards homes with natural light, specific layouts, and locations because our overall satisfaction, and in turn, wellbeing, is directly affected by these aspects, too.
The flip-side of the positive “emotional triggers” we keep in our spaces is a more nuanced category: nostalgic items. “Holding onto sentimental items stirs up nostalgia, which is a double edged sword.” Morin mentions. We allow photographs, gifts, and memorabilia to become emblems of our experiences, thus attaching deep value to these objects. “These feelings are funny and they tend to provoke a bunch of interesting emotions. It’s somewhat comforting to have them, but it’s important to be aware of the weight they carry.” So, what’s the experts’ advice on stuff management?
This is where Lisa Pepper-Satkin, MFT and psychotherapist, comes in. “The home is a metaphor for the self. If the home is cluttered, we tend to feel cluttered.” It’s far too easy to procrastinate when it comes to home improvement, but what happens if we begin to prioritize the state of our nests? “Everyone has different comfort zones. Particularly around mess and energy flow. But if you take notice of how productive you are in your space, you can capitalize on that knowledge.” In other words, incorporating a degree of self-awareness in your space is not a fluffy act of self-care, it’s a necessary component of success.
Lastly, Gosling introduces the final category of belongings, “behavioral residue,” or the things we inevitably leave around the house. Checkbooks, cleaning supplies, papers — these items are simple indicators of us, well, doing things.
The aftermath of our habitual home activities, like getting dressed and mail sorting, leads to a topic we often scrutinize ourselves or our peers for: messiness. “Conscientiousness is expressed in tidiness,” Gosling says. “To some degree, we can tell the level of conscientiousness in a person by looking at their personal space.” The psychologist explained that while he would expect the personality trait of conscientiousness, how organized and thorough a person is, to be the first personality trait to show up in a home, he was surprised to find that it’s not. “Openness — a willingness to try new things and explore new ideas — is actually expressed in the home more clearly than any personality trait.” This character trait can be measured through a collection of books, art, keepsakes, and symbols of cultural exploration.
So, while messiness may counteract productivity, it’s not always a direct indicator of character. Tedx Talks veteran Amy Morin agreed, but followed up with a hypothetical question: “If your kitchen is always messy, and you never want to have people over because of it, how does that affect your life?” She then offered a new approach. “Spend five minutes every day working towards a sparkling kitchen, and see how that feels. Is it more valuable for you to spend five minutes every day doing something else? These are important questions to ask yourself, in order to understand your personal value system.”
Housekeeping is an experiment of sorts — a seemingly trivial subject laced with insightful indicators of the self — that we can leverage for higher emotional intelligence. Lisa synopsized, “I think people have to find ways to feel comfortable in their own home, skin, self. It’s really all the same.” By applying science, we can eliminate the airy nature of mindfulness and self-awareness, empowering the concepts of mindfulness and self-care as downright smart.