Spring Cleaning for the Soul: According to This Professor of Psychology, Home Is Where the Clutter Isn't

By Ferrari, Joseph R. | U.S. Catholic, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Spring Cleaning for the Soul: According to This Professor of Psychology, Home Is Where the Clutter Isn't


Ferrari, Joseph R., U.S. Catholic


While traveling for work conferences, Deacon Joseph Ferrari heard the common phrase "make yourself at home" enough to get him thinking: What is home?

So Ferrari, a professor of psychology and St. Vincent de Paul Professor at DePaul University in Chicago, decided to take a closer look at what home means. "There's a body of literature on what's called 'place attachment'--how we're attached to places and how we identify with a place," Ferrari says. "But I wanted to focus on the nebulous feeling you get that makes you feel at home."

And, according to a recent study coauthored by Ferrari, a common method of "making oneself at home" is by associating with the material possessions within it. But is this a good thing? Not necessarily, Ferrari says. Left unchecked, an attachment to our possessions harms our relationships with other people and compromises the quality of our home lives. When you have a breadth of items in your home, Ferrari says, "you're drowning in a sea of stuff."

Ferrari coauthored the study with Catherine Roster, an associate professor of marketing at the University of New Mexico. The study, called "The Dark Side of Plome: Assessing Possession 'Clutter' on Subjective Well-being," was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and is the first study of its kind to look at how clutter impacts mental health and takes over the human experience of home or, as Ferrari calls it, the "dark side of home."

What do you mean by the "dark side of home"?

The "dark side of home" is when home is compromised by clutter. Home should be focused on people, not on things. I like to say: don't have relics, have relationships. Focus on the relationships that you have. The problem with possessions is that they cause us to forget about relationships and become bogged down by our stuff.

When you have a lot of clutter, home isn't always as positive as you might think.

So home is different than a shelter?

Shelter focuses on home as a dwelling. There's nothing wrong with focusing on home as a dwelling. But we also have a psychological home. What does that mean when you say to someone, "Home is wherever I'm with you"? You're saying it's beyond the place.

I've done some conference talks with people who said, "I grew up in the military," for example, "and home wasn't a place for us. Home was traveling around, because every few years we would be relocated. I didn't have a consistent place, but I felt at home." I think that's interesting. Because we identify with our possessions, we often feel "at home" by being with these possessions. Has home become our possessions?

What possessions qualify as clutter?

The interesting thing about clutter is to you it's your stuff and to somebody else it's your clutter. Clutter is often defined as an overabundance of possessions--things gone wild. The person with clutter feels overwhelmed and just can't keep organized and efficient. This is different than hoarding. Hoarding is usually having an overabundance of one thing. Clutter is having an overwhelming amount of different things.

I have been working in the past few years with a professional declutter expert named Sue Becker. Together we give talks in local communities and parishes called, "Clutter ain't Christian. Stuff ain't Saintly." As a deacon, I provide an overview of what scripture and the lives of saints teach us about living in abundance without attachment. Then Sue comes in and helps workshop attendees focus on how to organize and how to let go of nonessential items. Our experience is that attendees really enjoy the insights and the practical lessons.

Since I am also a community-social psychologist, my focus is on enhancing the lives of others and focusing on the strengths of communities and enriching them. Clinical psychology focuses on deficits--what is missing or "abnormal" in a person's life. Community psychology flips that model and asks how we can improve the lives of the community by building on their strengths. …

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