The Life-Changing Psychology of Tidying Up: Unexpected Lessons From Marie Kondo

Grab a cup of coffee, or three. Sit a spell (20 minutes). It’s change your life story time!
Before we get started, a little background: Last winter I spent some time navel gazing on small habits and eventually realized that building a healthier closet really echoed a broader longing to create a healthier beauty bag, body, mind, and home. A week after sharing a post on my new-found wellness rituals I stumbled across a curious Japanese book about tidying. Thus began a year long and very dramatic existential expedition of dismantling myself and my stuff, I Heart Huckabees-style. Okay! Great.
Over that same period of time, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has sold something along the lines of 3 million copies to people who have (pardon my French here) physically and metaphysically lost their merde over everything Marie Kondo – from her object philosophies to her adorably specific sock-folding methodology. Illustrated checklists and before and after diaries and critical reviews and shopping guides abound, along with a giddily profane parody, official Martha Stewart guide, and an entire secondary illustrated master class for expert Kondo-ing.
Cause and effect
So let’s be honest. When we get down to brass tacks (which, by the way, barely made the Kondo cut), would I say this book has really, truly changed my environment and approach to consumption? Of course. Ask any of my dear friends and family, or ask the book club also known as drunch that I join up with once a month, where I keep recommending we cover it.
It’s sort of alarming, fascinating, and charming to me to realize how much this one little book put a spell on me.
After I finished reading it one lazy Saturday afternoon, I began quietly offloading five carloads of home goods while my fiancé was out of town (a note here: this is actually a huge Kondo-no-no). Then I continued on with a series of weird and arguably compulsive actions that included buying a dozen pairs of identical black panties and camp socks, donating a bin full of Christmas presents within 48 hours of happily unwrapping them, passing on a closet’s worth of clothes to friends with strict instructions to “only keep what’s totally joyful, okay?”, listing every kitchen utensil in our home before manically researching ideal kitchen lists (Julia Child’s is actually pretty good) then buying a chinois for joyful berry straining and spending some thirty six hours creating a wedding registry of ethically made cereal bowls and hand forged copper pots, documenting and rating every last clothing purchase of 2015, and spending a thousand dollars on Saint Laurent handbags because they truly and deeply “sparked joy”.
I began to wonder: Is unbridled collecting and obsessive curating indicative of some kind of mental malaise? Wealth and decadence? Good taste and self expression? Safety and control? Is it convenience built on a mountain of cardboard?
Clues to the answer may be found in the psychology behind KonMari’s process of tidying.
Tidying Up: The process
According to KonMari, the first step to tidying is to envision your perfect life as told through objects. Go wild. Create an entire Pinterest board of it. Stalk your favorite aspirational Instagram accounts. Watch a couple Diane Keating and/or Diane Lane romcoms.  Read several interviews. Emanuelle Alt, Isabel Marant, etcetera, etcetera. It’s very important to indulge yourself at this point.
When you have a clear target in mind, you’ll need to formally “shop” every article of clothing in your wardrobe. EVERY last article. And FYI: You’re supposed to be well-dressed for this and also have a candle lit and say a prayer before you get started – sort of a ceremonial-ritual-cum-closet-spa-day. No music either! This is serious. The soundtrack to tidying is utter silence.
So. Pick up each item and ask: “Does this spark joy?”
No? Get rid of it.
Yes? Keep it!
That’s really it. That’s the entire book.
If zero of your belongings spark joy, no worries. It just means you need to be more grateful and try it again, search for new things, or eschew things all together and join a commune à la Father Yod. Welcome to The Source Family! Or Free People.
And yet. If you love this shopping exercise, it means you literally buy nothing while experiencing the remarkable high of obtaining new clothes, all over again. Also, maybe enlightenment. A psychological feel-good win-win either way, isn’t it?
Also, you have to thank every last item for its service, whether you keep it or not. Gratitude. Talking to your socks. Anthropomorphism. It’s heady stuff.
Once you’re done, KonMari has a oddly specific methodology for organizing and folding what’s left. Goop has an entire illustrated guide on it. If you’re like, “mehhh, I’m tired of talking to my underwear, I’ll do this later, whatever,” it’s time to buck up. This is a ritual. Unless your blood sugar is dangerously low, KonMari says you have to keep going. Because, fact: She once tidied so hard that she actually did pass out. Some hours later she awoke with the underpinnings of The Method instilled in her mind. Ikki Ni! In One Go! The Source Family. Okay. Anyway.
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Ed. Note: The spectrum between joy and love
Now, there’s a caveat not really covered in the book – and this is the place that it seems like a lot of people slip up – the test is not whether you love something, but rather whether it sparks joy. Does it make you smile for its very presence in the palm of your hand? That’s joy. Does it make you smile because you once wore it on that vacation where everything just went right and you got a perfect tan, but you haven’t worn it in like three years, and you really do love it when you think about the idea of it but it just doesn’t fit quite right anymore? That’s guilt, love, nostalgia – it’s a lot of things, but none of them are distinctly and sublimely and viscerally joy.
You have to tune into your gut reactions here. If you’re on the fence about being joyful, chances are it’s time to let your old sun-dress fly free to live a happy life elsewhere. And if you can’t decide if something is joyful or not, maybe ask if it’s beautiful and useful to you. That’s also not in the book, but it’s always served me well when joyful might feel, well, dispensable and ornamental.
Once you’ve gone through your clothes, move on to books, papers, miscellaneous items (affectionately referred to as komono), and lastly, mementos. That’s really it. You’re done once you’ve tackled and organized each of these categories.
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Additive versus subtractive tidying
Here’s why I think this method is so effective and enjoyable: Kondo simultaneously approaches decluttering in terms of accumulation and curation. Instead of purging belongings out of a closet, readers are encouraged to approach the process like a shopping expedition: Dump everything into a pile, distance yourself from your belongings, and select only what sparks joy to put back in the closet.
So, I have to wonder. Has The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up acquired a cult following where books like Stuff Your Face Or Face Your Stuff and Psychic Debris, Crowded Closets: The Relationship between the Stuff in Your Head and What’s Under Your Bed have not for the simple reason that we’re happiest when decluttering in terms of accumulating more, rather than ever really confronting any problematic psychological relationships with our stuff?
Or could it be that Kondo nudges us along with vibrant positive psychology, encouraging us to think of too much stuff as an opportunity to curate, instead of perceiving it as a point where we need to accept that the nature of this process means we made mistakes and miscalculated how much stuff we needed – or wanted – in the first place?
Death of a Salesman
While the architect Rem Koolhaas once theorized that “shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity” and “one of the principal – if only – modes by which we experience the city”, we have to acknowledge that the very concept of shopping as many of us once knew it is poised to become virtually extinct as we experiment with ideas like social ownership and grapple with the realization that shopping is “no longer just a transaction, a way to procure necessities or luxuries, but rather has become an end in itself. It’s a leisure activity, much like watching TV. It’s consumerism as entertainment.”
On this thread, one should also know that Kondo always, always wears white while she’s tidying. In the United States, white is a color traditionally associated with purity, tidiness, new beginnings. In KonMari’s native Japan, it’s more strongly associated with death and mourning.
Could it be that KonMari is peering deeply into that gaping chasm between the present and future of consumption, that she might find possible an eminent end to consumerism as we know it, carefully bridged by therapeutic closet-shopping and quiet exploration of the self?
What We Own
When I consider all of this, there’s a part of me that has to think about the first time I heard of this deeply American show called Animal Hoarders – which I thought was about animals who hoard things – which is actually about people who hoard animals.
Hear me out.
My original presumption that the show was about animals-that-collect was mostly based on an early education that animals are, in all realities, legitimate packrats. My childhood ferret Marcel hoarded all kinds of things in piles under beds and behind bookcases: twizzlers, shiny jewelry, Big Red chewing gum. One time my mom found her whole purse half-shoved behind the living room sofa.
I have to imagine Marcel stashed and curated his piles as a way to ensure safety, control, and comfort. Survival of the fittest ferret with the most stuff, or something like that.
To hoard is not necessarily to be uniquely human.
What Owns Us
So in a way, collecting surely seems like a natural, primitive reaction to the dangers of running short on the ingredients that make up the most basic of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: food, water, resources, health, property.
But in modern society, we’ve expanded our collections beyond the basics to acquire massive closets of totems that curiously seem to spotlight our most visible reaches toward the tippy-top of Maslow’s pyramid: self-actualization.
We strive for Maslow’s morality by assembling collections of ethically sourced goods, for his creativity by collecting art, fashion, decor, and the list goes on: spontaneity (souvenirs and gifts), problem-solving (because fewer, better things = more time to do other stuff!), lack of prejudice (globalization, albeit also the perils of cultural appropriation), and yet also, acceptance of the facts, of the struggle (the world is dying and one day so shall I; let me curate my abode and live in a happy web of tranquility and peace). So the pyramid circles back to prepondering human desires: food, water, resources, health, property. Even if those all of those needs are met, our instincts tell us to keep saving things.
Maybe, at our best, tidying and thinking about all of this leads us down a path of enlightenment about the transient nature of things, about taking only what you need, and appreciating what you keep. Gratitude, balance, mindfulness.
At our worst, having fulfilled all of our real needs but still needing to do something with our time and energy in order to calm our brains down from that instinct to hunt and gather, maybe we are poised to devolve into this hyper-decadent society obsessed with the aesthetic nature of everything we possess – which eventually possesses us. Confusing wants with needs, unable to turn off that primitive itch to collect, to survive. Maybe we’re already there.
And yet, all of this is to assume that we are rich enough, in the first place, to afford indulging in the idea of minimalism.
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Staycations in a time of patriarchy, sort of
So then I have to ask: How many hyper-consumptive Americans actually financed the whole late-2000s Eat Pray Love journey of self-discovery? And more importantly, how many even felt they had the means to attempt something of the sort?
Leveraging $10.19 into a whole new you can be an appealing notion when you’re up to your eyeballs in polyester pants and student loans (both of which, coincidentally, disintegrate in 20500 years).
It’s easy to pencil in one weekend holed up in your one bedroom flat quietly examining the detritus of your most tangible and lasting bits of existence in order to eventually realize that, when you really get down to it, you’re not so different from all that flotsam and jetsam you own, but also, that you are you, you are a person, you are not your stuff.
Are you defining your things, or are your things defining you?
So is this appeal to vaguely feminine self-discovery, expression, and control the reason why KonMari’s book, which currently dominates Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists, has almost exclusively been reviewed and raved about by women? And what is it that men are reading instead?
Is it a deeper thread that pulls at gender roles and societal expectations? American men are currently tidying more than ever, but that may be largely because they’re now less often married to a woman, who would likely tidy for them. The National Science Foundation points out that the presence of a husband can simultaneously cost women an additional seven hours of housework a week, while actually saving men an hour. Charming.
All of this is not to say husbands just don’t care about their belongings. Enter ardent one-star Amazon reviewer l.whit, whose “wife read this book and threw away a bunch of my stuff. I had to hide things in my truck to keep them off the chopping block. I hate this book.” In his defense, the surreptitious disposal of others’ belongings is, again, contrary to the KonMari Method.
But at any rate, l.whit doesn’t mention in the review that said wife encouraged him to take the KonMari Journey, which suggests either (1) she did and he declined, or (2) she didn’t suppose he’d be interested and never asked. To this point, critic Laura VanDerkam points out that men only appear two or three times throughout the entire Life-Changing tome, strongly suggesting that women typically maintain order in the average household.
I do think there’s an element of truth that many, many women (myself included) derive some form of self-worth from keeping their living quarters beautiful and in order. This could come from biology, society, or both. I’m inclined to go with the latter. And I haven’t necessarily made peace with this realization, or found a way around it.
But I also believe that in a healthy relationship, whoever makes the first KonMari attempt – whether female or male – ends up having an effect on the partner in the relationship, irate Amazon reviewers aside. In fact, in my own case, I believe another societally influenced principle came into play as I delved into my KonMari journey: my husband’s sense of competition. The more I cleaned out my closet, the more seldom-donned button-downs and worn out tee-shirts I noticed disappearing from his side of the closet. Turns out, they were each carefully chosen winners for an all expenses paid trip to Attic Treasures.
The end result of all of this? An out-and-out tidier and entirely less cluttered and more organized house, from the closets (a joint effort), to the tool set, linen closet, and living room (yours truly), to the spice rack and kitchen junk drawer (CPR’s initiative). While I undertook the first steps toward the effort, in the end, we came together to dream, explore, compromise, grow, and work together to build a home that we’ve come to love.

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