Why ‘Spark Joy’ Works, and When It Doesn’t

The popularity of Marie Kondo’s Netflix show “Tidying Up” has exposed more people to her ideas than ever. Because Kondo has such a clear, codified message and a confident way of expressing it, I find that many are happy to take her tactics at face value. Those that don’t tend to ridicule her. Neither side seems to spend much time trying to figure out why she says what she says, or why it works for so many people. Today I’d like to talk about the core tactic of the KonMari method, and why it is so effective.

If you know anything about KonMari, you know that you are only supposed to keep items that ‘Spark Joy’ for you. Kondo asks that you hold each item individually, ask if it sparks joy, and either keep or discard it based on your reaction. Critics of this method don’t like how nebulous and impractical the concept of “sparking joy” is, while supporters appreciate the simplicity of having a single question to always come back to. So why does it work?

Humans can easily jump onto emotional and logical hamster wheels when it comes to our stuff. We get stuck in repeating patterns that lead us to acquire but never remove, and even if we see this as a problem there’s often no clear way out. So when decluttering we use little shortcuts and tricks to help us. I’ve recommended many on this blog, and seen plenty of others work for people. These are things like turning around the hangers in your closet to see what you wear, getting rid of anything you haven’t touched in a year, packing up all your “maybe” items in a box and donating it after three months without opening it. The point of all of these is to get you off the hamster wheel and thinking about your possessions in a new and different way.

Spark Joy is a sledgehammer of a shortcut. It is a high-grade military tank designed to plow right through your excuses and cut to something visceral: does this make me happy or not. It works because it ruthlessly cuts past all of the “I might need it someday” and “this was suchthoughtful gift” and “I’ve been meaning to get back to this” and forces you to think exclusively about the present. Does this item bring you joy right here, right now, in this moment? If not, get rid of it.

Most of the clutter we hold on to is based on clinging to the past, ignoring the present, or being anxious about the future. Kondo’s philosophy breaks up those negative mental pathways and gives you one singular focus above all others. Most people struggle with living in the present and being true to the life they have right now, and the question “Does this spark joy?” pulls them past their struggles and to the issue at hand.

So that’s why it works for most people, most of the time. But the reason I don’t use Kondo’s methods exclusively is that I see occasions when asking if an item sparks joy doesn’t work as intended. The prime example, which Kondo admits to in her book, is that you will invariably go overboard on some items and regret getting rid of them. I know I did when I first read her book and tried her method on my own belongings. She actually predicts you will regret at least three things, and I can personally think of three things I got rid of when using KonMari that I wish I could get back. Kondo’s answer is that her clients find this to be a more than reasonable price to pay, and that having to replace a discarded item only reinforces in them how much they care about it. I didn’t respond in quite that way, as two of my three items weren’t really replaceable. I still accept my three items as a reasonable sacrifice for the huge gains I got in minimizing as a result of her methods. However I don’t feel comfortable asking my clients to make the same sacrifice, which is why I’m more cautious than KonMari normally allows.

A second reason the question of joy may not work for a person is that they struggle to define joy for themselves. Kondo has a very specific order for going through possessions that’s designed to increase your awareness of joy and make it easier to find that feeling. I believe her order is sound and generally works well to train people in the skill of finding joy. But depending on your relationship to certain objects like your clothes or your collectables, you may not respond as well as others. You might also find that outside circumstances make finding joy difficult or interrupt your ability to assess your own emotions accurately. Suffering from depression, dealing with a new job, trying to adjust to an empty nest – these are all things that can distract you away from joy and push you back on to that emotional hamster wheel.

Finally, looking for that spark of joy can be really difficult for certain items. Sometimes the meaning we derive from objects isn’t about joy or happiness. Documents detailing the death of a child. Notes from divorce hearings. Inherited objects from a parent we weren’t on good terms with. The relationships we have with these objects are complicated, and can create concrete walls that even the sledgehammer of Spark Joy can’t get through. Sometimes, the right decision is to get rid of these items and the pain they remind us of. Sometimes it’s not, because beneath the pain is a reminder of the strength we developed as a result. And sometimes it’s just a matter of time and distance. Notes from the divorce hearing may grow more or less important over time depending on the relationship you’ve managed to maintain with your ex. With these items, Spark Joy can’t easily find the heart of the problem, which is why you may struggle to let go even though you can say with certainty that the object doesn’t bring you joy.

Kondo disagrees with the use of smaller shortcuts because they rely on outside judgement about what you should keep, rather than letting the decision come from within. And those other quick fixes have their limitations (sometimes we wear things we don’t actually like, inactivity doesn’t always mean we don’t want something, we love things for irrational reasons, etc). However I employ these shortcuts myself and with clients because I know that they are all still tools, and they can come in handy when implemented in the right way. When you’re working by yourself and aren’t used to thinking critically about your relationships with your belongings, an extremely powerful tool like Spark Joy is really useful. I still recommend it to people all the time. Just remember that no single strategy works perfectly for all people at all times. There’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t make Spark Joy work. You may just need a different set of tools.

Photo via O-Tres Organization