Sparking Joy

Marie Kondo has changed everything. With her simple question about possessions – “Does this item spark joy?” – she has caused many of us to reevaluate the necessity of many of our belongings. Her popular book and Netflix show have brought the idea of intentional functional, and sustainable minimalismto the masses. But the question remains: is clutter really that bad for us? 


For many people, the television series “Hoarders” was the first time that they were made aware of the connection between a person’s living environment and mental health. It’s clear while watching the show that the people who are engaged in hoarding behaviors are struggling with deep feelings of depression, anxiety, and indecision. In many cases, they have suffered significant trauma. However, the idea that broken, useless items must be kept “just in case” is a confusing one – what contingency could exist that requires a stack of magazines from 15 years ago? – but then again, how may of us keep that shirt that just needs a button sewn on or that vacation souvenir that doesn’t match anything else we own? While hoarding is an extreme behavior, it points to something that many people can relate to: the inability to process loss and grieve. 

It’s Not the Clutter, It’s the Feeling

What do loss and grief have to do with hanging onto stuff? In the simplest terms: Loss of something irreplaceable triggers such extreme anxiety and sadness that everything becomes irreplaceable. It’s not about the clutter – it’s the feeling that the clutter wards off. The clutter fills up physical external space, but it metaphorically fills up inner space, too. And the more space that is filled, the less room there is to feel or move. For some, this would feel like a trap – restrictive and contracted – but for others it can feel like swaddling: controlled and safe. 

The process of grieving (to allow something or someone to be lost and to continue without it or them) is painful. Sometimes it is too painful and so people hang on to everything out of a deep fear that the next loss will completely destroy them. For others, the loss is diminishing but survivable. You can lose a loved one, and feel lessened by the loss, but know that you will survive and grow in other ways. You can donate old clothes and feel lessened by giving away something that doesn’t fit you anymore but know that you’ll probably find a new sweater that fits better. We form attachments to things because they are metaphors for relationships, parts of ourselves, memories, and incalculable other human experiences. Possessions are more than just clutter, they have meaning. It’s the meaning that makes the thing difficult to part with. Again, hoarding is an extreme and very complicated example – but think about the vacation souvenir. That vacation is over. Maybe you can go back to the same place. Maybe even with the same people. But you can’t recapture that precise experience. The souvenir may trigger memories; it has sentimental value. But do you need it in order to have access to those memories? Probably not. Does that mean that you should get rid of all of your souvenirs? Not so fast! Let’s consider something else: Altars.

Altars: Intentional Clutter?

Altars are associated with a variety of religious practices stretching back into pre-history. They serve an important purpose as both permanent places (meditation altars, shrines, churches, etc.) and temporary installations (El Dia de Los Muertos, birthdays, Oscar parties, etc.) for specific observances. Look around your home, you may be surprised at the altars that you’ve created without realizing it: the annual family portraits hung on one wall, your sports trophies on a single shelf, a collection of coffee mugs from your favorite cafés, a box of notes from a late relative, and so on. Even photo albums or digital photo collections can be thought of as altars. What would it mean if you created these things consciously and intentionally? Would you feel the need to keep all your trophies? Or would you only keep the ones that motivate you or represent a significant leap in your ability? Would you keep all the notes from your deceased relative? Do you need all your family portraits up or just your favorite? What keeps you grounded and aware versus surrounded and overwhelmed?

Thanks, Marie?

Human beings are impacted by our environments, but we are also incredibly impactful on our environments as well. We have a different kind of relationship to our surroundings than most creatures. Marie Kondo encourages us to approach our environment with gratitude and an eye toward sparking joy – but what if we didn’t assign a value (such as “this brings me joy” and “this doesn’t bring me joy”) to the feelings that were generated by our belongings? In other words, what if we just noted what came up and allowed ourselves to be curious about it?By doing so, we could allow for joy and sadness and everything in-between to come up, and out of that space, make the decision whether or not to include a certain belonging and experience in our environment. That is to say, we might tweak Marie’s suggestions by not just focusing on what brings us joy, but more broadly, by allowing whatever feelings comes up around a certain object to come to up. Out of that explorative space, we might let go of the things that restrict our experiences and keep those that expand it. The latter decision might very well involve many other feelings other than joy, and that’s okay. All of those feelings are valuable and should be acknowledged and appreciated, just like those trophies and coffee mugs.

I’m Katherine Smith, Psy.D., one of the therapists you could see at Wright Institute Los Angeles where we offer Affordable Therapy for Everyday People!

Katherine earned her doctorate from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She believes therapy is more than just overcoming life’s challenges – it is an opportunity for you to explore and create a new relationship to your self. Katherine approaches therapy with kindness, compassion, and humor. She has worked with individuals and couples of diverse backgrounds, sexual orientations, mental health concerns, and integrates social justice and feminist perspectives in her approach to therapy.