Why Feeling Clean Feels So Good

By: Alia Hoyt
cleanliness, psychology
There are both psychological and biological reasons that people simply feel better in a clean environment. Fairfax Media /Getty Images

If you're looking to bring a little extra joy to the special someone in your life, try cleaning out the car, organizing the desk or putting crisp, fresh sheets on the bed. You'll earn serious brownie points and it'll actually bring both biological and psychological benefits. Humans are simply hard-wired to function better in clean environments, and dirty or cluttered surroundings can actually have a ripple effect of negativity.

Morgan Brashear, a home care scientist with Procter & Gamble, notes in an email that people constantly deal with both internal and external pressures related to cleanliness. "From the internal point of view, when your house is dirty, or your space is cluttered or messy you feel chaotic internally. You don't feel like you have a handle on things," she explains. "When things are crazy at work and at home it multiplies the feeling of chaos. Keeping things ordered and clean can make you feel in control of the situation." Externally speaking, we stress ourselves out about how others will view our space, and fear that they'll pass judgement on our hygiene and housekeeping skills. So, not only are we our own harshest critics, we think everyone else is, too.


A Modern Standard of Clean

Why the preoccupation with cleanliness? Much of it has to do with developments over the last century or two. "The preference for cleanliness is a modern one that developed in the wake of rapid advances in sanitation, hygiene and technology. Now, a high level of cleanliness is taken as the minimum standard when a century ago much lower levels would have sufficed," says Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Clearly, these advances have made major inroads in the prevention of devastating infectious diseases, at least in developed countries, but Adalja notes that even our best efforts are likely to miss the mark to some degree. "Sterility, and by extension cleanliness, is associated with less presence of infectious organisms. However, though this may be true, nothing in everyday life is truly ever sterile as the world teems with microorganisms," he says. "Most of these microbes are harmless and actually very helpful. It is only under certain circumstances that a damaging infection occurs (for example, food or water contamination)."


The Nose Knows

Of course, most of us don't walk around the house with a microscope looking for trouble. Instead, we rely on the senses at our disposal. Although our eyes obviously play a role (it's pretty hard to miss a sink full of dirty dishes), it's the sense of smell that can really sniff out a nasty situation. Brashear notes that most people, for example, do a quick once-over to look for stains on clothing, and if a garment passes muster we proceed to the age old, ultra-reliable "sniff test."

The nose, unlike the other senses of sight, touch and sound, is directly connected to two areas of the brain (hippocampus and amygdala) by way of the olfactory bulb, which starts in the nose and runs along the brain, where the scent receptors are located. So intrinsically connected are the nose and the brain that certain scents are likely to bring back great memories, like mom tucking you into freshly laundered bed linens at night, making you feel calmer and happier overall.


"Every home has its own signature scent," Brashear says, noting that air is a complex combination of all odor molecules, like laundry and hair care products, lotion, cooking smells, or pet odors, stinky shoes and other undesirable scents. She says that the odor cycle affects every home, since there's usually nowhere for those scent molecules to go, especially when the house is closed up during the cold and hot weather months. So, when scent molecules get released into the air they move throughout the home, then they settle into the couch, carpet, drapes, etc. "Then, as soon as somebody plops down on the couch or there's a spike in humidity those molecules get re-released into the air," she says. And while many of us make it a priority to regularly clean closets, baseboards and bathrooms, she recommends truly cleaning the air with products that trap odor molecules and eliminate them rather than simply masking them. "Air makes up more than 75 percent of the space in your home and it's really important and often neglected."