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Can you be happy and messy at the same time?

by Lee Breslouer

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The late comedian George Carlin once said, “A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” But lately, people seem to be more interested in organizing the stuff they have, and minimizing the stuff they own altogether. And it’s not just the stuff in the house, it’s the house itself. Tiny house neighborhoods are popping up nationwide, offering the ultimate in minimalist living.

Why is organization such a popular topic right now? Can organizing every bit of your life actually make you happier? I spoke to Heather Reynolds, MA, LPC to find out.

Getting organized is great if it doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself

I have a huge kitchen counter, and I utilize nearly three-quarters of it to let junk mail and packages pile up on it throughout the workweek. Every day the pile gets bigger, and I do nothing to clean it, which leads me to feel guilty. So when I (sometimes) get around to cleaning it on the weekend, it feels like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

“If you’re clearing out clutter and giving yourself more space because it feels useful and valuable to you, then that’s super worthwhile,” Reynolds says. “But if you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I should be [cleaning up and organizing]’, and judging yourself for not having done it, then it seems to be creating internal clutter and judgment.”

If you’ve ever scrolled through Pinterest for more than 30 seconds, you’ve seen immaculately decorated and organized homes, ready to be Instagrammed. It’s not a huge jump to trick yourself into thinking everyone’s place is like that but yours. “If you’re not the kind of person who’s super organized, then be who you are. Stop judging yourself that you should be like that person over there. Not everybody is,” she says.

The allure of being perfectly organized

Marie Kondos international bestselling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, promises that if you declutter and organize your house one time, you’ll never have to do it again. There are certainly mindful elements to the sort of advice Kondo gives in her book—her method allows you to appreciate everything you own, as you must deliberately re-choose everything that gets to stay in your house, and get rid of everything that doesn’t. (Even watching her fold clothes with love and care is strangely mesmerizing.)

But radically organizing everything you own can come with an unexpected downside. “It seems like so much pressure, like, ‘This is how you should do it,’” Reynolds says. And that appears to be the point. A smiling figure like Kondo is telling you exactly how to store your clothing, and if you follow it, you’ll finally have a perfect house where everything is perfectly stored and organized. And then? Then you’ll be happy.

Why we organize

So I asked Reynolds: do we try to organize everything within our four walls because we think it’ll make us happier? Or is it something else? “Organization is a false attempt to try and do something impossible, which is [to] control the chaos in the world,” she says. “We can control certain things—I can put my keys in the same place every time so I’m not rushing around in the morning trying to find them. But I don’t have any control of the traffic situation [once I leave]. There’s a limit to the amount of ways we can organize and put things where they belong and make things easier.”

A clean and organized home can indeed make life easier and bring us satisfaction, but it’s not likely to be the key to a happy life. If it feels good to clean, clean. If it helps you get a project started or gives you a little more time to procrastinate, great. But spending too much time imagining the happiness you could feel in a clean house might just deny you the time you could be happy in a messy one.

Lee Breslouer

Lee Breslouer is a senior writer for Thrillist.com, where his focus is writing about everything under the sun. He's a little bit over a year into his meditation journey.

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