Why We Clean

Recent surveys in the field of behavioural psychology have lumped household cleaning in with such notorious vices as drinking, gambling, sex and recreational drug use. While we don’t tend to think of cleaning as a form of escapism comparable to heroin or skydiving, it is certainly worth a second look. The popular conception of the sex-starved, stay-at-home 1950s American housewife with broom in hand and Prozac in pocket is an interesting first step to understanding why we clean.

Do we clean to turn off? Is this healthy? Many would say absolutely, or in any case, comparatively. Unlike its decidedly more self-destructive counterparts on the behavioural scientist’s checklist, cleaning can be seen to have unmistakable benefits in the day to day life of most human beings. It helps us feel better and improves the physical beauty of our surrounding environment. But how exactly does this work?

Primarily, cleaning is something we have immediate control over. It’s as simple as grabbing the sponge or hauling out the hoover. Because we can do it whenever we please, it is a source of easy and instantaneous self-gratification. We get measurable results and a feeling of satisfaction in completing each of our cleaning tasks. While you may not be able to rule your children or your boss, you can exert considerable control over your laundry and ironing. What then of the professional cleaning service, if doing the chores is such a rewarding experience?

The clue is in our housewife’s packet of pills. Like the appetite for drink, drugs, sex, or gambling, household cleaning is conceivably endless. A woman’s work is never done, as the saying goes. While we have control over the immediate cleaning task, just as the alcoholic must put the glass to his lips to get the next drink, we tend to lose ourselves in the overall process. As things get clean, they can also get dirty, within a matter of minutes, hours or days. A sense of helplessness can take hold, and here opens the place for the professional cleaning service.

In metropolitan cities, cleaning is a multi-billion dollar business. For cleaning services London and other world cities boast literally thousands of professional cleaning companies willing to help with a little dusting and tidying right on through heavy-duty, multiple year cleaning contracts. The answer, it would seem, to “why we clean” is increasingly because we want to, not because we have to. Although cleaning is perhaps worthy of its title as a potentially compulsive behaviour, getting help is easy and this is the beauty of it. The gratification and sense of accomplishment remain, but the helpless feeling of being unable to cope is easily remedied.