Sparking Joy to Cope with Stress

Judith T. Moskowitz, PhD, MPH, and Ian Kwok, MA

Charitable organizations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army are reporting significant increases in donations over previous years. This sudden spike in generosity may be attributed to a tidying fever that’s literally swept the globe — otherwise known as the Marie Kondo effect.

Since the debut of the tidying guru’s Netflix show earlier this year, devotees and detractors alike have relentlessly dissected her unconventional methods — some of which include talking aloud to inanimate household objects and deciding whether they “spark joy” and, if not, thanking them before sending them on their way to the local second-hand shop to, one hopes, spark joy for someone else.

Marie Kondo’s method appears to be more than simply another approach to organize all the stuff that inevitably accumulates for many of us. As the show demonstrates, the KonMari philosophy is as much a psychological process as it is a physical sorting of possessions. From a psychological perspective, people can learn to harness the power of positive emotions like joy and gratitude which helps them deal with life stress across a spectrum from daily hassles to major loss. Consequently, a large part of the appeal of Marie Kondo’s book and show may lie in the ways the KonMari method helps us deal with increasing levels of stress associated with our current social and political climate.

Our research team at Northwestern University studies the adaptive role of positive emotion in coping with stress; our studies have shown that the exercises recommended in the KonMari method, like noticing what sparks joy and expressing gratitude, can help individuals cope with stressful life events. For example, in one recent study, we taught dementia caregivers skills to help focus on positive emotion through activities like noticing and savoring positive events, expressing gratitude, and engaging in acts of kindness. Compared to a caregivers in a control group who simply reported their emotions daily, those in the positive emotion group had significantly lowered depression and increased appreciation of the positive aspects of caregiving. In another study with people newly diagnosed with HIV, those who learned the positive emotion skills were less likely to go on antidepressants over the course of the study and reported higher levels of happiness compared to participants in a control group who spent a comparable amount of time with study staff.

One could easily write off the KonMari method as a collective fantasy that taps into a pigeonholed narrative of Japanese culture. Kondo fondly recalls her childhood experiences as a Shinto shrine maiden as a source of inspiration for her tidying philosophy. But the way she talks about her guiding principles seems more broadly self-reflective; which speaks to our desire to pause, reflect, and be open to positive experiences in this modern moment.

Some have suggested that her methods apply only to those with the means and resources. However, the message intricately woven throughout her books, is that we should treasure the things that we already own, as opposed to searching endlessly for the next shiny object to adorn our bookcases with. Sparks joy, if nothing, provides us with a peppy mnemonic device that reminds us to be a little more appreciative for what we have — instead of reaching for the next outfit, relationship, or career move that promises to make our lives better. As part of Kondo’s method, she always takes a moment to pause and express gratitude for her client’s home, before any of the actual tidying begins. A ritual, which, in her words, “hones your sensitivity to joy.” This leads one to consider if this attitude of gratitude can also apply to the other positive aspects of our life that could use much more of our appreciation.

The central premise of Kondo’s thesis — that we should treasure and value the things in our lives that bring us joy — serves as a comforting balm in the midst of all manner of life stress. The thought of initiating a dialogue with an unworn acrylic sweater remains questionable, but the spring-cleaning sensei might be onto something in the modern way that she reminds us of the importance of positive emotion in our lives.

Judith T. Moskowitz is a professor of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University and Director of Research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. Ian Kwok is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.