The Mood-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

When the world feels chaotic, you can always try organizing the linen closet.

July 2022

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Comic illustration of a fairy turning a clutter of boxes into an organized order.

Illustration: Gary Taxali

If, to your surprise, you’ve found yourself calmed by watching and rewatching YouTube videos of paper being cut into perfect circles, or you are somewhat concerned about the amount of joy you got from reorganizing your closet—fret not. Searching for symmetry and order in these, the tiniest corners of our lives, may be just what the doctor ordered in times of chaos and strife.

“So much feels out of our control at a world level right now that it’s impacting our mental health,” says Carolyn Rodriguez, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Although few of the bad things we see happening are truly random, much feels impossible to predict, and that causes “a lot of angst,” she says. Cleaning and organizing can reduce anxiety and stress—and even become a mindfulness practice—while tidy spaces can help you focus. So videos that celebrate symmetry or TV shows in which someone else’s garage gets decluttered may just be quick hits of relaxation—harmless coping mechanisms to help us deal with constant change and lack of control.

‘For some, it’s very soothing to look at ordered things.’

“As a clinician, you try and help highlight the positive coping mechanisms, like taking a walk or uncluttering home spaces,” Rodriguez says, rather than the more negative ones, such as drinking too much alcohol or repeatedly staying up too late.

Rodriguez treats patients with depression and anxiety, including hoarding disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. So when it comes to understanding the mind’s natural distaste for randomness and general inclination toward predictability and control, she’s something of an expert. And right now, with wars and plagues and natural disasters, social inequities, economic uncertainty and even the high price of gas, seeking solace in our sock drawers makes perfect sense.

“For some, it’s very soothing to look at ordered things,” she says, admitting that she has watched an episode or two of Get Organized with the Home Edit, where two professional organizers get paid to say things like “pantries are just the most fun” while rearranging cluttered spaces into displays of visual splendor.

“It’s a fantasy,” Rodriguez says. “‘Why doesn’t a fairy come and organize my life?’” Reese Witherspoon, whose Hello Sunshine media company now owns the Home Edit brand, proudly shared photos of her professionally reorganized closet, where her famously pink wardrobe from the movie Legally Blonde is arranged by hue, from palest blush to brightest fuchsia.

‘Seeing a space that is clear and orderly is rewarding for patients and is highly motivating for them to continue to build on that success.’

Of course, even if tidying sparks joy, it isn’t going to solve serious mental health issues by itself. Intolerance of uncertainty—the dispositional tendency to fear the unknown—has been linked with excessive worry, obsessions and compulsions, and hoarding symptoms. Rodriguez encourages patients with hoarding disorder to start with small goals and just a few minutes of work per day, like uncluttering one square foot at a time or tidying a high-traffic area of the home (for example, the entrance). “Seeing a space—even a small space—that is clear and orderly is rewarding for patients and is highly motivating for them to continue to build on that success,” she says. 

She also understands the allure of arranging home items using the method of rainbow organizing—endlessly popular on YouTube and on home organizing TV shows—which involves displaying everything from books to fingernail polish in color-spectrum order, from red through orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

“The rainbow has a certain order—it’s familiar,” Rodriguez says. “It even touches the heart a little bit, that things are going to be OK. Everything’s neat and organized, like kindergarten.”

Rodriguez herself has found great comfort in organizing corners of her own world, just like she counsels others to try. “For me, it was that front hallway. Having the kids’ shoes aligned in the entryway was very soothing.” 

Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at traciew@stanford.edu.

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