Stuff Sparks Joy

Marie Kondo understands what Tucker Carlson and Bernie Sanders do not.


When Bernie Sanders and Tucker Carlson agree on something, be afraid. The democratic socialist senator and the populist conservative pundit are not natural allies. But recently, they have converged on a single point of consensus with potentially terrifying consequences: Americans have too much stuff.

The far left of the American political spectrum is the longtime home of Starbucks-smashing protesters, militant recyclers, Naomi Klein acolytes, and Walmart boycotters—people who believe we are destroying the planet with our overconsumption of cheap stuff at the expense of workers' well-being. On his 1987 folk album (yes, such a thing exists), Sanders pinpointed "consumerism, the futile striving for happiness by earning more and more money to buy more and more things," as one of the world's great problems, a theme the Vermont independent has returned to while lamenting everything from the wide variety of deodorant choices on drug store shelves to Chinese imports.

A subset of conservatives has long espoused its own variant of anti-consumerism, typically concerned more with the corruption of the immortal soul than the planet. But in January, Fox News host Tucker Carlson highlighted how aligned the views of the populist right and the socialist left have become on issues of trade, industry, jobs, and markets. "Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven't so far," he asked, in the middle of an impassioned monologue imploring viewers to turn away from the idea that markets are a force for good. "Libertarians tell us that's how markets work—consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives," he sneered. "OK. But it's also disgusting."

Sanders and Carlson are both fundamentally wrong about stuff and its relation to happiness. The person who best grasps the true dynamic isn't a pundit, a philosopher, or an economist. She's a self-help guru with two best-selling books and a new series on Netflix: the tiny Japanese deity of tidiness, Marie Kondo.

Kondo's life's work is to help people sort their belongings, toss a bunch of them, and put the rest away neatly. She calls it The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She asks her clients to hold each object they possess one at a time to decide if it "sparks joy." If it doesn't, one thanks the object and discards it. Sound anti-consumerist? It's not: The insight that undergirds her entire system is that stuff can, in fact, make you happy.

There is such a thing as too much stuff, of course. America's bulging attics and cluttered spare bedrooms are testaments to the burden that too many objects can impose. Anyone who has ever thought "I have nothing to wear" while standing in front of a packed closet knows that having an excess of choices cacophonously presented can be paralyzing.

But both the left and the right are subject to dangerous romantic fantasies about lives with limited choice. Conservatives tend to idealize a time when a less dynamic economy and fewer divisible assets kept families together in close quarters of sheer necessity, while liberals and progressives fondly imagine a world where the engine of the economy runs slower, work is more leisurely, and competition is less fierce.

Kondo does flirt with the idea that clutter makes you physically unwell—that it induces anxiety, bad eating habits, tension, and more. And she may be right. But if too much of the wrong stuff is bad for your health, not enough of the right stuff is much, much worse.

Modern food sanitation is enabled by inexpensive plastic. Modern medicine by disposable sterile needles and packaging. The dramatic worldwide reduction in malnutrition is a credit to diverse cheap food facilitated by global markets. In 1960, infant mortality in the U.S. was 26 per 1,000 live births. In 2017, it was 6. Adult mortality fell by more than half over the same period. Money can't buy happiness, but abject poverty is a ticket to misery.

In almost every episode of Kondo's Netflix show, there is a cameo by a box of cables. No one knows what they are for, yet they lurk in hall closets and file cabinets. These cord collections are a relic of a time when such stockpiles were rational. A missing cord or adapter could render extremely expensive electronics useless, and replacements could be difficult or impossible to source. Today, thanks to cheap imports from China and elsewhere, electronics are cheap and replacement parts are instantly searchable, then deliverable right to your door.

In this sense, Americans' homes are crowded with too much stuff not because they're too rich but because they're still thinking of themselves as too poor. This seemingly counterintuitive notion is on display in the difference between the homes of the wealthy, which are nearly always large but devoid of visible extraneous objects, and the houses of the working class, which are much more likely to be crammed to the rafters. Poor people tend to keep everything. But the desire to hang on to lots of stuff originates in fear, not joy.

At the core of Kondo's project is an idea more revolutionary than and in opposition to the prevailing anti-materialist moral consensus. By asking you to pay attention to how you feel about things, she hopes to help you become more sensitive to stuff-induced euphoria. Kondo taps into the strong feelings people have about their belongings rather than asking them to minimize those impulses, as the practitioners of both left- and right-wing variants of anti-consumerist austerity demand.

In this way, Kondo answers the most tenacious criticism of her methodology: that only the most obscenely wealthy could even consider practicing this method, which is contingent on throwing away masses of perfectly good clothes and household objects in pursuit of an intangible goal of tidiness. So wasteful! Surely, this critique goes, no one has ever held a bottle of Clorox or a six-pack of Charmin and felt joy.

In fact, when scarcity becomes extreme, necessities can generate intense feelings. In Venezuela, toilet paper sparks joy. But that's hardly a recommendation for socialism.

When Sanders scoffs at a wide deodorant selection and Carlson sneers at cheap iPhones, both men exhibit astonishing failures of imagination. Of course an affordable iPhone brings joy, by enabling better communication with the people we love, if nothing else. And for some hard-working, sweaty people, a good deodorant arsenal is absolutely crucial to day-to-day well-being.

Kondo, by contrast, is a pluralist. If there's anything we've learned from the golden age of reality TV, it's that people are weirder than you could possibly have imagined. Human beings are astonishingly various. Kondo's antiseptic appearance (she has geometrically tidy bangs and wears only crisp white tops) and strong opinions about the right way to fold socks notwithstanding, she is the only one of the three who is ultimately willing to leave people's happiness in their own hands, to trust them to know themselves better than she does.

When confronted with the kind of overstuffed middle-class lives that fill Bernie and Tucker with revulsion, Kondo squeaks "I love mess!" and seems to mean it.

Carlson and Sanders seem to know everything: How women should allocate their time between work and family, how factories should make staffing decisions, whose pain is strong enough to justify pills and who should tough it out, which cheap Chinese goods are acceptable and in what quantities. Tidying Up contains no quotas, no ratios, no target number of trash bags or boxes that must end up by the curb. Even more surprising, there is no evidence that Kondo secretly favors the people who choose to keep books or photos, say, over those who struggle to part with sweaters or spatulas. She genuinely wants her clients to figure out what makes them happy. End of story.

Kondo's cheerful neutrality about other people's preferences is a great, undervalued virtue. That disinterestedness is rare and beautiful in a world filled with so many hectoring busybodies.