Can material possessions truly spark joy?

There’s more to deciding what’s clutter in your life than whether it sparks joy or not. And is the superficial joy of owning material possessions of any real value anyway?

Does it spark joy?

‘Dad was a packrat,’ writes blogger John P. Weiss. ‘The garage was filled to the gills, and the rest of the house was equally loaded with a lifetime of possessions. If Dad had met Marie Kondo, he’d have told her that all his stuff brings him joy.’

This is a problem I find again and again in my work with people who have clutter. They can be very attached to their things and many claim that it all brings them joy.

So how did it ever become fashionable for joy to be the criterion for keeping stuff or letting it go? Well, it all started with Marie Kondo’s first book. Or more precisely, the English translation of her first book.

According to my Japanese friends, in the original version of her book, published in Japan in 2011, she invites people to ask themselves, ni tokimekuka? when deciding whether to keep something or let it go. The verb tokimeku means to throb or pulsate, and ni tokimekuka? translates into English as “does it charge you up?” or “does it give you a thrill?”. It’s very similar to “does it lift your energy?” from the Clutter Test in my Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui book, which was published in the UK in 1998 and in Japan in 2002, where it immediately became a national bestseller.

However, when Kondo’s book was translated into English in 2014, ni tokimekuka? was changed by the translator to the much catchier phrase of “does it spark joy?” And that’s where the problems began.

Material things are not a true source of joy

We are not born with any material possessions and we can’t take any of them with us when we die. Even our body is only on loan from the planet and will disintegrate after death. So believing that we own things is an illusion. We can only ever be temporary custodians. And expecting them to bring us joy is not a recipe for a happy or meaningful life.

Each of us is here on earth for a purpose and the possessions we keep around us during the time we are here can either help us or hinder us in our journey. We need to have enough to be able to do what we’re here to do but not so much that they hold us back, as a cluttered home can certainly do.

I explain more about this in Chapter 6 of my book: ‘The desire to possess things comes from a lower, grasping part of you that strives to own and control things. Your Spirit already knows you own nothing. It is a matter of realizing that your happiness does not depend on your ownership of things. They can help you in your journey but they are not the journey itself.’

This is why I say that using joy as a barometer is not a reliable method for whether to keep something or let it go. By all means surround yourself with things that uplift your energy. But it’s taking it too far to suggest that material things can truly be a source of joy.

The nature of joy

True joy is what is known as a soul force quality and it can be actively cultivated, as can be seen from the spiritual radiance of the Dalai Lama. He’s joy incarnate. You can see it in the twinkle in his eyes, his serenity, laughter, gestures and speech.

‘Everyone seeks happiness, joyfulness, but from outside — from money, power, from [a] big car, [a] big house,’  he is quoted in The Book of Joy as saying. ‘Most people never pay much attention to the ultimate source of a happy life, which is inside, not outside.’

‘Joy is much bigger than happiness,’ explains Archbishop Desmond Tutu elsewhere in the book. ‘While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.’

So seeking joy from material possessions is a spiritual dead-end. You’ll get to the end of your life and have no idea why you  were born or what it was all about.

Why there’s more to clutter than whether it sparks joy

In my book, I explain there are four categories of clutter:

  • Things you do not use or love
  • Things that are untidy or disorganized
  • Too many things in too small a space
  • Anything unfinished

The problem with using “does it spark joy?” to decide whether to keep something or let it go is that it only addresses the first category. I’ve met people who love everything they own but their home is a chaotic mess, it’s so stuffed full of things there are rooms they can no longer use, or their list of unfinished tasks and propensity for procrastination is a never-ending source of anguish.

So the method I recommend goes much deeper. It’s called The Clutter Test and it consists of three questions to ask yourself about any item you own:

  1. Does it lift my energy when I think about it or look at it?
  2. Do I absolutely love it?
  3. Is it genuinely useful?

If you get a yes to all three questions, then move to the next level of questioning:

Do I absolutely love it?
If so, does it really inspire me, or is it just “nice”?
Do I already have enough of this type of item for my needs?
In spite of how much I love it, does it also have sad associations in my life?

Is it genuinely useful?
If so, when did I actually last use it?
When, realistically, am I likely to use it again?

The Clutter Test is a tried and tested method that I’ve been teaching people all over the world for over 20 years with superb results. It’s part of a system that helps people not just to clear their clutter but to understand why they accumulated it in the first place.

I can see the quick-fix appeal of using “does it spark joy?” to sort through your things. But for most people, it’s just not that simple. Clutter is always a symptom of an underlying issue and unless you get to the bottom of why you felt the need to acquire things, it will all just pile up again.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2019

Related articles
How to use The Clutter Test
What is clutter?
Joy is not merely a fleeting emotion

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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9 Responses to Can material possessions truly spark joy?

  1. Without a doubt, the KonMari method has brought some insight to people who would have never otherwise heard of Feng Shui-like philosophy. But everyone needs to absorb the teachings and decide for themselves if it applies to them or not. I believe it is useful most of the time, but like you propose, sometimes logic needs to kick in.

    I had an example of this some days ago. I am in the last 10% or so of clearing my clutter and I came across an useful little manual for children that taught very easy and cool crafts for school. I love this manual! But as I fondly perused it, sparking lots of joy, I asked myself, “Exactly what do I need this for?” I have been doing crafts for decades and know those basic techniques by heart. On top of that, the paper was already smelling quite musty. So full of hesitation, to the dump it went.

    Guess what? I didn’t miss it for a minute now! I thought I would totally regret it, but I don’t! So yeah, spark joy but have some use is a more sensible criteria.

  2. Hi Karen, Thank you for bringing that clarity! I have also watched the Marie Kondo TV show and practised that method when clearing out my closet but that is as far as I got. It feels a bit strange to me to thank my items of clothing though because I believe in a higher power and believe that whatever I receive is from that higher power. I also try to list at least 10 things I am grateful for each day (present and future things). I agree that things can get very lost in translation. I prefer your questions of “does it lift my energy?”

    Thank you for all the years of clarity and consistent teaching.

    Wishing you a splendid New Year!

  3. I’m so glad you wrote this, Karen!

    I appreciate your work as well as Marie Kondo’s but could never grasp the “spark joy” sensation, whereas “Does it lift your energy?” is spot on. The vocabulary really threw me off. Unfortunately, much was lost in the translation from the Japanese. Now it finally makes sense. Thank you for clarifying.

  4. Hello Karen,

    I love your and Marie Kondo’s philosophies. For myself, I blend the two and it makes my home and life very efficient and gratifying. I sincerely appreciate your wisdom and for myself the term “spark joy” does in fact mean, Do I need it? Does it really support my life? Would my life be just as wonderful without it? Your explanation behind the psychology of clutter and how it truly affects our bodies is quite intriguing and I am straightaway going to discard my future skinny self wardrobe! I believe you and Marie are both inspiring people to live healthier lives and to be more aware of the present moment. Thanks for all that you do!

  5. “The desire to possess things comes from a lower, grasping part of you that strives to own and control things.” I have found so often this test gets to my true intent and fear, and guides me to a much better solution for all involved than just holding onto things. The spirit is what makes life love worthy. What I truly appreciate about Karen’s integrity as a teacher is that she does not put her name on containers! For sure, I’d be tempted to buy them. Thank you and blessings on your work, Karen!

  6. Dear Karen:
    Thank you so very much for the tremendous insight, wisdom, and practicality you have shown me throughout the years. I am now much older and about to go through the biggest clutter clearing of my life. It’s wonderful that now I can look at all the keeps me frozen in procrastination and see that these things are never going to be of use to me. I plan on giving most away, selling what can bring in much needed cash, and calling the Junk Man to take the rest. I have no idea of what I’m about to embark on, except that it will be very difficult personally. But I like to keep the vision of what it will look like and feel like when I’m through. Every time I can clear even a tiny space, it fills my heart with the message that I am on my way to much needed order to my life — it will seep into every corner. You are wonderful support. Namaste.

  7. Yes I have used your clutter tests since I read about them many years ago and seem to get more pleasure by ‘moving things out and on’ than acquiring them. The things that spark joy in me at the moment are seeing the first snowdrops in my garden on the verge of flowering and just a few minutes ago spotting Goldfinches eating the seeds on my teasles.

  8. Hi Karen, May I firstly say welcome home, I enjoy reading your newsletters. Today, reading your thoughts on “does it spark joy” I found something shift inside me and feel like yes that’s it!!! I live in a wee corner of N Ireland and now in my twilight years and trying to sort out things in my home so that there’ll be less for my children to do when I shuffle off to wherever or whenever. I was finding it hard to let go of simple things and now after all this time I think I have a better understanding of the whole process. It is no coincidence, I believe, that it’s the 1st day of a new year that this realisation has suddenly hit me and watch this Thank you Karen for your insights and wish you a wonderful happy life filled with joy.

  9. Karen, thanks so much for this clarifying article. It puts so much in perspective and reminds me once again why I get so much out of your books, articles and courses.

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