You’ve felt it.  The claustrophobia… the crowding... the suffocation of being surrounded by too much stuff.  

Maybe it’s been in someone else’s house that you’ve been bombarded with clutter, or perhaps it’s been in your own home or office. Either way, you know the feeling:  Papers scattered and piled.  Yesterday’s mug crowning the tattered collection of receipts. Shoes in a pile. Crumbs on the floor.  Pillows strewn, and laundry scattered. ...though sometimes tactically separated into clean and dirty piles.  

When we’re in environments such as these, the sensory overload can become physiological.  Your eyes glaze over, you zone out… you feel the tension crawling from your back, up your shoulders, and to the base of your skull… it’s hard to even make a decision about what to clean first.  Sometimes you just run. 

The struggle, folks, is real.

The organizational gurus of the world tell us that “a place for everything and everything in its place” is the way to control your environment, but the reality is that the environmental answer to reducing chaos is more complicated than that.  Although one person may be bugged that there’s dust under the oven, another can’t be bothered to scrub the toilet more than twice a year.  What’s the difference here?  What’s going on? And why doesn’t Bonnie-Across-The-Hall at work never even miss a beat while co-dwelling with her trashed desk, while you air-dust your keyboard twice weekly?

The feeling of being crowded is personal—people have different thresholds for reacting to clutter and different pet peeves when it comes to the sorts of clutter and household chaos that bug them. So while tips such as “never leave a dirty dish in the sink” are helpful, they tend to fall short.  That personal feeling of “too much stuff” or “too crowded” is the determining factor when assessing how people react to their environments above and beyond what their environment is actually like in terms of square footage or visual clutter.  

Believe it or not, the key is perception.

To understand the effects of the environment on people, my colleagues and I organized a research study to see how being over-stimulated in a social setting affected children’s behavior.  In the research setting where the children played, we introduced flickering lights, played layered ambient noise, and presented distracting textures. Some kids did just fine focusing when we asked them to complete a puzzle among the environmental stimuli.  But other kids wigged out.

We learned that sensory processing is different for everyone but, regardless of your own personal threshold for stimulation, once your threshold for stimulation has been crossed, your body goes into coping mode and checks out of connecting (or learning, or even focusing) mode.

My contribution to the study was to assess how moms felt about their home environments, and what happened to their family functioning if they lived in small spaces or felt like they didn’t have enough space (that crowded feeling).  

When our study was published, we received many questions about the ideal square footage per person—how big of a home do people need so that they don’t feel crowded or overstimulated? Our research showed that the density of people’s homes—the number of square feet per person—did impact families to a degree, but it wasn’t the most important thing.  The factor that best explained whether people were struggling with feeling emotionally close to their family, able to make decisions together as a group, and feeling accepted within their family unit was whether they perceived that they didn’t have enough space.  When people felt crowded, their relationships suffered, and it didn’t matter if they had 1,500 square feet to live in or 8,000.  

Here’s the bottom line: although everyone needs enough space, bigger is not necessarily better.  Instead, being able to connect meaningfully with others depends on where people can feel that peaceful, easy, feeling of having “enough space.”  If a tiny house hits the mark for you, perfect.  If you need 6,000 square feet to yourself in order to feel calm and comfortable, then by all means, make it happen!  

In the end, the most impactful question for everyone to consider regarding their home might just be: “Does living here make me feel crowded?” 

Even if your home is small, there are some design tricks that can make your space feel more serene.  For example, select less bulky furniture, with thinner legs on chairs and couches, so that there’s a sense of extra circulation space.  You can also decorate with bigger-but-fewer decor items instead of lots of smaller knick-knacks to condense the amount of visual processing that your space requires.  In fact, I have a long list of how to “Ace Your Space” and kick that crowded feeling to the curb, and it’s for you, absolutely free. 

Happy Housing!

For Further Reading

Thornock, C. M., Nelson, L. J., Porter, C. L., & Evans-Stout, C. A. (2019). There’s no place like home: The associations between residential attributes and family functioning. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 64, 39-47.

Evans, G. W., Lepore, S. J., & Schroeder, A. (1996). The role of interior design elements in human responses to crowding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 20, 41-46.

Altman, I., & Chemers, M. (1980). Culture and Environment. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.


BBC News 

Rubinstein, P. (2019, September 10). For a happier home life, is bigger always better? Retrieved from


Carly Thornock is the founder of Intentional House, a design studio and lifestyle blog, and is the author of “Intentional House by Month: A Seasonal Guide to Family Connection at Home.”