The Joy of Decluttering: Increasing Well-Being by Making More of Less

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Many people are reacting to the negative psychological, social, and environmental impacts of rampant consumerism with a strong desire to declutter and simplify their lives, often by stripping their possessions down to those that have the most utility or personal meaning.

The widespread desire to simplify is evidenced by the popularity of reality shows such as Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and the 100 Things Challenge, a grassroots movement started by entrepreneur Dave Bruno in which people try to pare their belongings down to just 100 items. The enthusiasm with which these trends have been embraced is unsurprising because so many of us are feeling overwhelmed, weighed down, and oppressed by the sheer volume of stuff we have accumulated.

Avid declutterers are disillusioned with the false promises made by marketers of material goods. Objects are often acquired in response to advertising messages suggesting that a product will increase our attractiveness or social status, bring happiness and fun into our lives, encourage us to make positive lifestyle changes, or bring us a much-needed sense of calm and well-being. However, these promises are seldom fulfilled by material things.

Taking control of their stuff gives declutterers a better sense of control over their lives, but the drive to simplify may go beyond a desire for control and even touch upon the spiritual in some cases.

Decluttering as an Anxiety-Reducing or Antidepressant Process

The fast pace of modern life leaves little time to pause, relax, and reflect, and having lots of stuff creates extra work because all these things must be sorted, organized, stored, and maintained (and people have to work extra hours to afford them in the first place). Having fewer things means that there is less work to do and more time to engage in meaningful activities.

Lee (2017), who conducted a phenomenological study of people engaging in the Marie Kondo tidying process, argues that having too many things causes “symbolic pollution” because items are out of place within our personal classification systems. Thus, getting rid of unnecessary things preserves the integrity of these systems, which increases happiness.

For some people, rampant acquisition eventually tips over into hoarding, which is classified as a mental health disorder. However, even those who simply feel that their homes are cluttered, messy, or chaotic score more highly on measures of depression and their cortisol (stress hormone) levels indicate a higher risk of poor health outcomes (Saxbe & Repetti, 2009). Given the links among clutter, unhappiness, anxiety, and health, decluttering may bring mental and physical health benefits.

Many of us find the process of decluttering incredibly satisfying and anxiety reducing, as it makes our homes easier to manage. Moreover, thinking about the meaning of our belongings makes us reflect on the meaning of our lives, what constitutes a good life, and how we would like to live, so the process can trigger additional changes that improve our long-term well-being.

The Decluttering Process

While some hardcore minimalists focus on the numbers – reducing to 100 things or getting rid of a certain number of items, others choose to eliminate anything not used regularly or apply the Marie Kondo method whereby objects are kept if they “spark joy” or released if they do not.

Whatever method you choose, keep the importance of personal symbolism in mind. Lee (2017) found that for those engaging in a decluttering process, symbolic classification was more important to happiness than the physical objects themselves. In other words, what the items mean and how they make us feel should be the primary driver of whether to keep or get rid of them. However, this does not mean prioritizing hedonic value (for example, aesthetics or nostalgic appeal) over functional value because usefulness and symbolic value often overlap. In other words, anything that helps us do things more quickly and easily can spark joy just as effectively as objects that are beautiful or evoke happy memories.

The Marie Kondo (also known as KonMarie) method has become very popular in recent years because it works well for many people. Kondo recommends tackling the clutter problem category by category rather than room by room, working your way through clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous items, and sentimental items. With this approach, you gather up all items in a particular category and go through them, determining whether they spark joy. Those that no longer do so (or never did in the first place) can be released from service, while those that bring happiness, are required for functional purposes, or both should be kept. Kondo recommends visualizing your ideal lifestyle to guide this process.

While the KonMarie method is among the most frequently used approaches to decluttering, it doesn’t matter what method you use as long as it improves your life in both tangible and intangible ways. Tangible improvements include a more attractive home, being able to find things more easily, and putting less work into household maintenance. Intangible benefits may include satisfaction, reduced anxiety and stress, increased happiness and calmness, shifting to a healthier lifestyle, focusing on more meaningful activities, and making more thoughtful purchases in the future so that you don’t waste your money and time on things that won’t contribute positively to your life.

References:

    • Kondo, M., The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, 2014
    • Lee H.H. In Pursuit of Happiness: Phenomenological Study of the Konmari Decluttering Method. ACR North American Advances. 2017.
    • McLaughlin, L., “How to Live with Just 100 Things,” Time Magazine, 5 June 2008.
    • Saxbe DE, Repetti R. No place like home: Home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2010 Jan;36(1):71-81.
    • The Washington Post, “One Man’s Anti-Consumer Challenge: Live With Only 100 Things,” 30 November 2008.
    • Tolin D.F., Frost R.O., Steketee G., Muroff J. Cognitive behavioral therapy for hoarding disorder: A meta‐ Depression and anxiety. 2015 Mar;32(3):158-66.