Guess: What Arguably Trivial Habit Gives a Giant Boost of Happiness?

Is it…getting enough sleep? Yes, but that’s not what I’m thinking of.

Is it…getting some exercise? Yes, but that’s not what I’m thinking of.

Give up?

It’s….putting things away in the proper place! Zoikes, this (admittedly fairly insignificant) habit gives a disproportionate boost of happiness. Just this weekend, I tried to find:

— the cord that connects my camera to my computer
— the headphones for my husband’s iTouch
— my younger daughter’s swimming goggles
— a copy of Patricia Clapp’s novel, Jane-Emily, for my older daughter (a terrific young-adult book, by the way)
— a business card I’d picked up at a meeting I attended three weeks ago
— the flight information for my upcoming trip
— a legal pad
— a pair of AA batteries
— my video camera

It gives me a small but real jolt of happiness to walk straight to a thing and lay my hands on it, without having to hunt around. Knowing where things are stored saves time; gives me a feeling of orderliness and comfort at home; saves me from frustration and worry — not to mention redundant purchases.

Also, I find that just as it’s deeply satisfying to be able to find something when I want it, it’s also surprisingly satisfying to put something away in the right place. One of life’s small pleasures is to return something to its proper and precise place; placing the flashlight on the second shelf in the coat closet gives me the archer’s satisfaction of hitting a mark. Have you ever seen those peg boards where people have outlined their tools or their kitchen implements, to show where each thing belongs? (I think Julia Child had one.) That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

Now I strive to have an exact place for everything in my whole apartment (except toys – I just throw plastic dishes and stuffed animals into whatever box, drawer, or shelf is closest, or else I’d never have time to do anything else). Obviously, this system makes it easier to find the things I need without frustration, which boosts my happiness, but it also boosts my happiness to have that deep sense of placement.

It can be tiresome to decide, “Where exactly does this belong?” when I’m putting away a particular thing. Often, it would be easier just to chuck it into a closet or a drawer someplace. But taking the time to put things away in a proper place is worth the effort — more than I would’ve expected.

How about you? Do you get satisfaction out of having an exact place for your possessions? Or do you think it’s not very important?

* There’s always a lot of interesting material on Flavorwire — “cultural news and critique.” For instance, I loved this link to Slate’s color wheel of cartoon characters, which I found there.

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and every weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email inbox.

  • Peninith1

    Oh YES. This is something I learned over a period of years. I am pretty good now about the keys, my scotch tape, various kitchen implements, and things in the sewing room. Mad searches before I go out the door hardly every happen any more. I have some friends who come for Sunday dinner though, and help with the dishes. Mondays often have a friendly and amusing little sizzle about them as I look for a favorite dish or pan or can opener. Once my favorite corkscrew went missing for a couple of weeks! This, however, tells me that I have a sense of order and place for myself. It makes it so easy to tidy up, too. I don’t have to make decisions or wonder. Things just go where they GO. This is an immense savings in mental and emotional energy, which really should be used for other matters. I try not to be obsessive, but I love the gradual increase in order I’ve seen in my home in great part because I know where things belong.

  • Heather

    I’m always surprised just how aggravated I get searching for things… it would definitely make my day better if I wasn’t hunting for something at the last minute. 

    In response to the first two questions in your post… I think it’s important not to forget the importance of things like drinking enough water. I exercised this morning and felt invigorated for a short time. Now hours later I am tired and grumpy and it is too early for bed. Then I realized… not a drop of water since I got home from the gym. I’m going to get a glass of water. 

  • Having a place to put things has become very important.  Tie into this is also not having so many possessions to begin with.   Clutter comes from accumulation. 

    While it may seem that going shopping can make you happy, the act of BUYING and accumulating has additional unanticipated costs – including deciding what do with what you’ve bought.  Would that everything in life could fit on a Julia Child pegboard!

  • This one puts my wife and I at odds. I have always relied on an excellent memory so when I put something down I know where I put it last. My wife likes to “put things away” which means that I can never find anything.

    • Karen A

      My husband and I have the same issue.  The problem is, his memory isn’t so excellent.  So not only can’t he ever find anything, he’s always asking me to find stuff for him.  UGH.  You may be different, but in my experience most people’s memories are not as good as they think they are.

  • My husband is frequently annoyed at me because I do misplace things.  But I am working on it and increasingly finding the right place to put things… if you try to make a place and it isn’t really convenient, it’ll never stick.

  • Cal


  • Christina

    Having a place for everything and everything is so important to me… especially with three boys (including twins).  My husband and boys are a work in progress when it comes to this area, but they’re already learning that Mom is a lot happier when stuff is put where it belongs!

  • I would agree with you Gretchen!…

  • Val

    Yes,  I adore neatness.    It’s like decisions pre-made.   Simplicity and calm.

  • Sandie Duggan

    I have 1  particular place for sunglasses, car keys, house keys and wallet as recommended by Flylady. It is a time saver every day and in an emergency you can be out of the house in seconds.

  • Patti

    Mary Poppins was a great proponent of ‘a place for everything and everthing in its place”.  It does add calm, saves time and helps you keep stock of your possessions.  I agree with you on this one too!

  • Funny, I was just thinking about this today–mostly about how much satisfaction I get from putting things in their own place. And if I can’t find a place for something, it’s clutter, and out it goes.

  • In a home with three boys (well, really two and a husband) I’m the go-to person for lost objects and since I’m the one putting everything away where it belongs, the answer is always quick and easy.  Not only do I not waste time looking for other people’s things, I’m praised as the person who knows where everything is.  The only problem is, what will my boys do when they move out?  Better teach them a trick or two before they do!

  • bev smith

    All i can say is my university and above aged children make my house very homely especially during the summer.

  • Ella

    Both my son and I go from being reasonable, patient, tolerant, easy to live with people to unreasonable, intolerant, suspicious (weird huh?), complete grumps after two nights of going to bed too late.  It utterly changes our personality and has for me ever since I was young as it has for my son who is now 16.  My husband however can go for long stretches sleep deprived and still retain his calm.  I guess it depend on your make-up.  

  • Rachel Lesher

    This is so very true!  This is another thing that seemed simple but your book really hit it home for me – managing clutter is an easy success that makes such a big difference!!  There is nothing that feels quite as good as knowing where to find anything you need.

  • Megan Gordon

    I’ve been trying to teach my son this because I think it is an important habit. Why waste time searching for something when you could be doing something else (preferrably something fun)?

  • Sara S

    Oh, my gosh!  Jane-Emily!  One of MY biggest happiness boosts is being able to re-read and introduce to my own kids books that I loved as a child.  I had forgotten about this one — thanks for reminding me about it!  Off to request from the library…

    • gretchenrubin

      It is SO good. But creepy!


      • Sara S

        Creepy… no kidding!  It’s probably been 30 years since I read it and it still gives me chills.  I can’t decide if my 10-year old is ready for it or not.

  • khomet

    I used to be good at this but fell out of the habit during several years of family and business crisis. Good habits aren’t so easy to establish just as bad habits are hard to break. Any hints for building good habits and stopping bad ones?

  • Armychic73

    PERFECT POST!  Hence the reason why my husband calls me “OCD.”  Everything HAS to be in its place…why?  Because there is a place for everything!  My husband gives me a hard time because whenever I finish using something I always have to put everything back where “it belongs.”  He cannot understand this and always he asks me, “Why put it back if you are just going to use it again?”  (Example, sugar dish, in the cupboard above the kitchen counter, to the right side of the stove, that I use for my coffee every morning.)  Yet there have been many, many times where he asks me where something is and I can tell him (over the phone even!) where to go and where to look and exactly where it is (giant happiness boost!).  Although I have to admit that I secretly find a little pleasure when he is going bizerk looking for something he cannot find.  I take this opportunity to tell him, “See?  If you had put it back where you got it from and replaced it where it belongs, then you would know where it is.” Hee.Hee.  After 13 years of marriage he still refuses to put things back in their place (mainly because he still fails to realize that things “have a place” where they belong).  I never have a problem finding anything-isn’t that how life should be?- (unless HE did not put it back where it belongs).      

  • The problem with talking about how great it is to have everything put away in the correct place is that it sounds awfully smug. It’s still a good idea, though.

    Also, “Jane-Emily” is a great book! Another wonderful, creepy YA book of that era is “A Candle In Her Room.”

  • Carol Fleury

    I love having things be in their proper place, but I’m married to a wonderful man who can’t stand having anything sitting out, and just shoves stuff wherever it fits – nothing logical about it.

    I keep reminding myself I love him exactly as he is, so that helps.

  • Erica

    If you live in a cramped space it’s very difficult to make a precise place for everything unless you are a truly hardcore minimalist.  Some things have to share.  Someday, SOMEDAY, I will have space for enough bookshelves!  And yes, that will feel wonderful.

    (Also, yeah, sorry, but it does sound a bit smug to those of us born without the organization gene.)

  • Ella

    I am and always have been someone who needs order.  I find if my environment is messy I become anxious and distracted.  Do you find though that there exists a breed of individual who makes their living environment so neat it is unwelcoming.  You step in the door and place keys down on a counter and before you know it those keys are placed beside your purse with your sunglasses!  The living environment feels almost antiseptic.  

  • Eileencan

    I must have a zillion bookmarks, but never when I need one. So I took a pretty mug I could no longer drink out of and made it my bookmark mug and put it on my bookshelf. Now the joy of choosing a new book is paired with selecting a bookmark from the mug, and I cannot believe what a big difference this tiny little thing made.

  • Nptog

    Not everything in my house has a place, but there are some things that do.  Unfortunately, my husband has no idea where any of those places are, so he just shoves them wherever, and then doesn’t remember where.  So I still end up looking for everything anyway.  After I finally said that if I’m in the middle of cooking dinner and can’t find the strainer one more time, he can forget about having dinner at all, he at least learned where all the dishes go :-).

    Unfortunately I find that a lot of these good habits you put forward as happiness boosters are easily foiled by an uncooperative (or just oblivious) housemate.

    • Barnhartsteph

      My hubby does the same thing. I keep telling him I’m going to give him a tour of our house. I might try that dinner threat. 🙂

  • Sean

    Really? Hmmm. Never thought about that. I always thought it was getting a good rest or spending time with family and friends. I like your blog Gretchen. I always have. You find happiness in some of the most unlikeliest places. Thanks for your your perspective.


  • Being organized always helps to keep me happy. Clutter = Dysfunction

  • Bravo! Do you want to have a talk with my husband about this? He’s a good guy but NEVER puts anything back where it was. I have limitations in mobility so having things in the same place all the time really helps me be independent. This is something EVERY kid should learn how to do.

  • Gretchen,

    This is the perfect post for me right now!  This week my focus is on simplifying.  I confession, I’m not one to have the perfect place for each item or to return an item to its spot.  I’m with you in trying to turn this around to create more space and happiness.

  • Definitely, I get a satisfied thrill whenever I can easily spot the things that I’m looking for. Though admittedly, sometimes my satisfaction mostly stems from finding things outside of the house, like easily finding the items that I’m looking for in a grocery shop or a book that I’ve been looking for ages.

  • Beth NC

    Well, this activity may not bring me happiness directly, but it reduces unhappiness of frustration when items can’t be found.  I can’t stand searching for stuff.
    In reading these comments, it occurs to me that you can take  ” a place for everything and everything in its place” to different levels.  My spices are all in the spice rack, but they’re not in alphabetical order. My t-shirts are all in the same drawer, but not sorted by color.  Others may like being more precise. People just have to find their own level of this activity. 

  • Definitely yes.  Being able to lay hands on something without a frustrating search was a key motivation in organizing my household.  Getting all the cameras and their cords and chargers in one place = priceless.

  • I just thought of one and had to come back and tell you about it! For me, it’s getting things tailored. It’s inexpensive and easy – my dry cleaner is literally around the corner – but I tend to delay getting it done. Once it’s done, I’m so happy! I’m now wearing a skirt that I love but had been falling down for months. It had annoyed me enough that I stopped wearing it, but then I took 3 months to have it taken in.

    The moral of the story: get things fixed. It’s silly to own things that are not in usable condition (other than, perhaps, antiques). That little snap that avoids the dreaded gap in button down shirts, waists pulled in, hips let out… these things make my wardrobe better and me *much* happier.

  • I think it would be helpful to have a certain place for most things, but I don’t always do that.  Sometimes I just get lazy and set stuff down on a counter, or drop things off in my room, and then later panic when I can’t find certain things.  I’ve thought I’ve lost my camera several times, and each time made my heart race as I frantically searched the house, but eventually I always found it buried somewhere.  So I really should have a place for my camera.  I do have places for other things though and am somewhat organized. 

  • Judi Cross

    I not only know which drawer my ice pick is in, I also know the exact spot within the drawer.   I sail through my day because of extreme “put it back-ness”.  It does make life so easy to be neat.

  • Val

    The only reason you love this so much is because you also respect sleep.  I too am an orderly person and love being able to find scotch tape or a scissors without searching the house, to know where things are. (Not that easy in house full of kids.)

    But NOTHING matters to me when I’m too tired. Since I went back to work as a p.m. nurse I worship sleep.   I get so tired I sleep all morning like I haven’t since I was a teenager.

    Food? Who cares?   Just let me sleeep. Please, please, please don’t make me get up.   love, Val

  • At home, when I find myself procrastinating about putting things away, this generally means one of two things. Either the item cannot be returned to its home because the home is full (in which case I need to do some purging) or it has no home (in which case I need to designate one).  Just a trigger I use to know it’s time for a little more organizing.

    It’s easy & quick to toss something wherever it lands when you’re finished using it, but you’re only shortchanging yourself. Taking the time to “return things to their homes” (or create homes if they don’t exist) is such a worthwhile investment. It takes a lot of discipline, though.

    “For every minute spent organizing, an hour is earned.” -Benjamin Franklin

  • heather

    funny, this is one of the components of my self-makeover (so to speak). I am looking at myself and trying to improve habits etc. that I have to become a better me. I’ve been going through my house & boxes and things keeping whats necessary and finding homes for everything I keep. I read somewhere… outer order creates inner calm.