Cutting through the clutter

Joseph Ferrari
Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, co-authored a study that examined how an overabundance of possessions can create a chaotic and disorderly living space. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
The phrase "make yourself at home" seems perfectly innocuous, but there is a significant psychological element to doing so that few people may consider.

According to a new study, the most common method of "making oneself at home" is by identifying with the objects that are kept in it - and that kind of attachment can have significant consequences if left unchecked.

"There is a danger to identifying strongly with possessions because it can disrupt one's life where it hurts the most: a sense of home," says Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University.

Ferrari co-authored with Catherine Roster, an associate professor of marketing at the University of New Mexico, "The Dark Side of Home: Assessing Possession 'Clutter' on Subjective Well-being," which was published in the May-June 2016 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Ferrari says it's the first study of its kind to look at how clutter can have an impact on mental health.

"It's the danger of clutter, the totality of one's possessions being so overwhelming that it chips away at your well-being, relationships, and more - drowning in a sea of stuff," he says.

No place like home

Ferrari says we often feel "at home" by identifying with our possessions.

"There's something about our possessions and our ownership that become our identity - they become who we are," Ferrari says. "That attachment to possessions allows us to feel 'at home.' For example, office workers who like to decorate their cubicle with personal mementos."

While there's no harm in a few trinkets or a manageable collection, Ferrari warned that when our attachment to our possessions gets overwhelming, then they're not just harmless stuff - as a mass, it's clutter.

"When it interrupts your life, you need to do something," he says. "That's the problem with clutter. It can disturb your relationship and your sense of home and bonding with others."

'The dark side of home'

Clutter is distinct from hoarding, said Ferrari. While hoarding is usually an excess of one object, clutter is the overwhelming sum of any number of different objects, he explained, adding that it can overwhelm a victim mentally by becoming such a distraction and preoccupation that they can't focus, or physically when the sheer space taken up by clutter becomes an obstacle in their daily life.

Studying nebulous, intangible concepts like "home" poses a few challenges. It's not like taking a temperature where one can use a single tool and receive a clear reading. It's a subjective feeling that can only be quantified through systematic analysis, Ferrari explains.

Kendall Crum, a first-year doctoral student in DePaul's community psychology program, assisted Ferrari with the data mining.  Crum says that while collecting data for the study, they had to find the best possible objective measure for psychological home.

The subjects in the study were clients of a de-cluttering organization who participated by completing an in-depth survey about place attachment, assessing objective factors like size of living space and demographic information, but also subjective variables like happiness and personal well-being.

Ferrari noted that the results provided an interesting look into how individuals establish a sense of home in relation to their possessions. "When we have too many possessions, they can become clutter," he says. "Most people think of home positively, but we're showing the negative side, the dark side."

Combatting clutter

Ferrari's research on well-being revealed a clear link between clutter and a feeling of home, but when kept in check, curating certain possessions provides a healthy outlet for self-expression. He stressed the importance of recognizing when possessions become unmanageable above all else - even Ferrari keeps a collection. 

"Something about lighthouses appeals a lot to me. The whole wall in my office has lighthouse figures," he says. "Manageability, practicality and the healthiness of the attachment is what separates personal collections from harmful clutter."