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No Place Like Home: Perceptions of Home and the Correlation with Cortisol

I recently stumbled across this fantastic study that delineates everything I preach in my work – that a clean home and mental health are closely correlated.


Furthermore, this study provides scientific “proof” and evidence that an effective cleaning method leads to a more positive outlook on life. If that interests you, you’ve certainly come to the right place!


 

The home can be a place to unwind from the workday, but when housework becomes too much of a burden, the home can become more of a source of demands rather than an escape from the outside world.


Women, who often assume more responsibility in maintaining the household, may be more likely to find their time at home more stressful than soothing. Researchers have found that the transition from work to home may be less revitalizing for working women than for working men. For example, a study found that working men had sharp decreases in arousal after work, whereas working women’s levels were flat or increased. Another study found that women sometimes even opted for longer workdays to avoid obligations facing them at home!


Researchers have long recognized that people’s experiences and perceptions of their everyday environments can inform their well-being. For example, the physical characteristics of a space (crowding, clutter, noise, artificial light) have been shown to affect mood and health. It is likely that individuals’ feelings about their homes also shape their everyday fluctuations in stress and mood.



What is Cortisol?


Before diving in, it’s essential to understand the basics of the hormone, Cortisol, which has a strong biological rhythm that synchronizes with the day/night cycle. Levels typically peak within the first hour of being awake, decline rapidly throughout the morning, and taper off over the rest of the day before zeroing out at night time. The shape of this pattern has been linked with psychological and physical well-being across multiple studies. In general, flat slopes, in which cortisol levels are low throughout the day, have been associated with greater chronic stress, disease progression, and even mortality risk.



The blue shows what normal cortisol levels should look like.

Testing Perceptions of the Home and Cortisol Levels


In this particular study, thirty dual-earner middle-class families in a West Coast U.S. city were recruited. Each family included two cohabitating adults both working full-time (30+ hours per week), and two to three children, one between 7 and 12 years old. All families held a mortgage on their home.


Perceptions of the Home


“Here’s the little sitting area especially in the winter where I sit and light a fire and read. It’s really peaceful and nice when the kids are asleep… and this is the family room which we all love and relax and play in.”
– Home tour given by mother

“These are the windows, which won’t shut, and if I had more money, I would replace. Here are the holes in the wall, which don’t get repaired… And I get to come home and I always reflect on all the holes in the wall and all the things that aren’t done.”
– Home tour given by father

Before testing participants’ cortisol levels and their mood, camcorders were left at the households for spouses to conduct a tour and emphasize spaces and possessions that were meaningful to them. On average, each tour contained 2,000 words explaining the home. The words used by spouses were sorted into the following four categories:


  1. Cluttered – words referring to a sense of messiness or chaos

  2. House unfinished – words implying that the home is a work in progress that requires additional repair or renovation

  3. Restful – words suggesting that the home is relaxing

  4. Nature – words describing the backyard or natural features such as trees or plants


In total, 60 tours were conducted – one for each spouse. The most widely used words were backyard (44 tours) and mess (40 tours). The “cluttered” and “house unfinished” categories indicate a stressful home, and the “restful” and “nature” categories indicate a revitalizing home. Table 1 illustrates how many words for each category, on average, were used.



Stressful

Home

Revitalizing

Home

Cluttered

House Unfinished

Restful

Nature

4.4

3.8

2.4

12.8

Table 1


Husbands’ and wives’ average stressful home and restorative home ratings did not differ.



Testing Cortisol Levels and Mood


Over a three-day period, spouses were instructed to self-collect saliva samples (to measure cortisol levels) and fill out mood reports just after awakening, just before lunch, just before leaving work, and just before going to bed. Then, each participant’s mood and cortisol levels were modeled using this data.


The mood rating scales (from 0 to 3) asked how well a series of adjectives – miserable, sad, and discouraged – described one’s current mood. The range for both husbands and wives was 0 to 2.88, with a mean of 0.51 for husbands and 0.50 for wives.


Morning cortisol values should start low and then reach the day’s peak. Husbands’ morning value of cortisol suggested that husbands who described their homes as being more stressful had higher levels of cortisol. Wives with a higher revitalizing home word count were associated with a steeper level of cortisol, and those with a stressful home word count had flatter slopes of cortisol. Specifically, wives’ stressful home score was associated with a lower morning cortisol value


Mid-day values, post-peak, slowly decline into the evening. A restorative home score was associated with a steeper drop in cortisol, and a stressful home was associated with a flatter drop. Remember, for this period of time, normal cortisol levels should decline steadily – they should not be flat.


Stressful home words and revitalizing home words did not affect the morning value or trajectory of husbands’ or wives’ moods across the day. However, for women, both stressful home and restorative home words affected the rate of a depressed mood across the day. Women with higher scores for stressful home words tended to report more depressed mood as the day went on. In contrast, the women with higher scores of restorative home words tended to report less depressed mood as the day went on.



What Does All of this Mean, and Why Does it Matter?


The results of this study suggest that women’s descriptions of their homes may predict their everyday experiences of stress and a negative mood. Wives who described their homes as being more stressful (that is, who talked more about clutter and unfinished projects) had flatter rates of cortisol, an indicator of chronic stress that has been linked with adverse health outcomes. They also tended to show greater increases in a depressed mood across the day, consistent with greater fatigue in the evening and a more difficult transition from work to home. In contrast, wives who described their homes as more revitalizing (that is, who talked more about their yards and outdoor home features, and who used more words connoting relaxation at home) had steeper cortisol slopes and showed a decrease of a depressed mood across the day.


Husbands with higher stressful home scores also had a higher morning value of cortisol. However, neither revitalizing home nor stressful home scores affected any other cortisol or mood parameters for husbands.


The largely null results for husbands, contrasted with significant results for wives, suggest that women may be more sensitive to the home environment or may feel a greater sense of responsibility for the home (for example, feeling guilty about clutter). This finding would be consistent with other research suggesting that the home is traditionally perceived as a women’s domain and ultimate responsibility, even in couples where both partners are employed.


Given that the home tours had a social component – that is, participants were presenting their homes to others, specifically the study researchers – women might have been particularly sensitive to the imagined judgments of their audience.



Your Well-Being


This study shows that individuals’ subjective descriptions of their homes are linked with their subsequent patterns of mood and cortisol. Even a crude technique like word counting unearthed a relationship between the everyday experiences of stress for wives, underlining the importance of the home environment to well-being and psychosocial functioning – and, in turn, the possible role of well-being in the perception or maintenance of a pleasant home environment.


There are a number of mechanisms, both direct and indirect, that could account for these results. For example, perceiving one’s home as being cluttered or unfinished could directly trigger stress reactions and a depressed mood, whereas viewing the home as more reinvigorating might alleviate these negative states. For example, women who see their homes as a source of demands (the need to straighten up clutter or complete unfinished projects) might have more difficulty unwinding effectively from the workday.


Ultimately, this study found intriguing links between wives’ descriptions of their homes and their patterns of cortisol and depressed mood. Given that everyday levels of cortisol and a depressed mood may influence long-term physical and psychological health outcomes, these results illustrate the importance of individuals’ perceptions of the home environment for well-being. When coming home from work means noticing piles of clutter or a long list of to-do projects, it is perhaps no surprise that cortisol levels fail to show a normal decline in the evening and that ratings of depressed mood increase over the course of the day.


Similarly, focusing on those features of the home that are restful or that incorporate nature may ease the transition from work to home, explaining a stronger pattern of cortisol and an across-the-day decrease in depressed mood levels. These results suggest not only that impressions of the home environment may inform everyday health but that these impressions may be especially important for women.


So, there ya have it! Your perception of the home – and how well you maintain it – can drastically affect your well-being. What steps can you take today to feel a little better about your home?


All information provided by No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate with Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol.

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