Two weeks ago, I had an experience which inspired me to think about my relationship with the things I own. In preparation for moving house, I condensed my clothes down to what I would need for the next five days, hung them in my wardrobe, put everything else in a cardboard box, and paused. Not only did the wardrobe look different, but I felt dramatically different looking at it. A feeling of ease enveloped me, a sense of freedom.
After living with 28 years of stuff, my awareness was brought to the weight of it all. Why had I been living with this stuff if it had been subtly weighing me down? Inspired by having fewer coat hangers to pick up, I explored the psychological impact of material belongings on our mental wellness.
Environment decides our moods, our emotions, our thoughts, our actions.
—Kamlesh Patel 1
It’s true. Our environment affects us in many ways. More time spent in nature can improve our health and well-being,2 there is generally a higher risk of mental illness in cities than in rural areas,3 and architectural design can impact productivity in the workplace.4 It can even affect our DNA.5 We commonly think of spaces when we think of environment, but our belongings are also a part of it. From the clothes we wear to that box of glass jars under the bed that were going to become terrariums (just me?), the things we own are environmental factors that affect our minds.
Clutter can also be an environmental factor. By clutter, I mean things in our environment that make it untidy. One study found that more clutter was associated with more depression throughout the day, fatigue in the evening, and less satisfaction in relationships.6 Our possessions, including the ones we are attached to but don’t regularly use, contribute to the clutter.7 This implies that owning more clutter-prone items can worsen our mental health. So can letting go of such items make us feel better? It seems so!
In a scientific literature review on minimalism, 21 studies showed that reducing consumption and excess in one’s life improves well-being.8 Minimalism, also known as voluntary simplicity, is a philosophy that encourages us to live with less, an opposing force to consumerism. For some, it can provide an opportunity to become aware of the intentions that drive us to accumulate different things. A space to notice the thoughts and energy we give to our belongings and the energy they give back. A country with elements of minimalism ingrained into its culture is Japan.
The KonMari method9 is a popular organizing method developed by Marie Kondo, a Japanese author, TV presenter, and consultant known for her bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and her Netflix TV show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.
The KonMari method involves gathering all your belongings together in one place, one category at a time, and only keeping the ones that spark joy. To see if an item sparks joy, you hold it and see if it makes you feel joyful. First you go through your clothes, keep the ones that spark joy and discard the ones that don’t, then move on to books, paper, etc. The items you choose to keep are given a specific location where they will stay.
Even though this approach is similar to minimalism, Kondo states, “Minimalism advocates living with less; the KonMari Method encourages living among items you truly cherish.”10 Following the KonMari method, you are surrounded by purposeful possessions, creating an environment that reflects the positivity within you.
Kondo says that removing household items that don’t spark joy lets you reflect on the usefulness of each item, invoking an opportunity to learn from your past experiences. She says this helps to learn what the feeling of joy means to you, which will develop and aid you in future decluttering. Whilst tidying, she encourages you to set the intention to build an environment that will cater to the person you aspire to be.
Whilst the KonMari method has seen a mainstream surge of interest, there is a deeper intention behind it, the influence of Shinto, a religious system in Japan. Kondo previously worked as a priestess at a Shinto shrine,11 which she says influences her method: “In Shintoism and in shrines, tidying and cleaning are regarded as mental cultivation and spiritual training. I suggest people develop their home as if it is their own shrine, which is a power spot to its residents.”
Shinto first appeared in the literature over 2,000 years ago.12 In a survey, 80% of people in Japan said they practice the Shinto tradition, but less than 4% identified it as their religion.13
What defines Shinto? It is the belief in Kami, divine entities that watch over the universe and live alongside humans, commonly in beautiful objects of nature.14 Humans respect the Kami and, in return, they receive the Kami’s love.15 We communicate with them through offerings and prayer, which is believed to help maintain a sacred relationship with the environment. Cleaning and tidiness are a staple ritual in Shinto, as it is believed that waste and pollution separate a person from the creative nature of Kami, known as Musubi, which connects everything and everyone in the universe.
“In the West, we are taught that cleanliness is next to godliness. In Shinto, cleanliness is godliness.”16 This gives a deeper understanding of Kondo’s work and an alternative look at how tidying up can be changed from a chore to a divine act of gratitude.
For most of my life, I have lived in clutter: stuff on the floor, random ideas for art projects under my bed, musical instruments that I did not play, etc. I identified with my creative chaos and was partially content with it. Thinking back on it, I resented organization, being born into a family of hyper-organizers. However, my mess did create some emotional conflict and subtle brain fog, which I am still processing today. I can empathize with people who are okay with their clutter – they may have more pressing matters to attend to or a different way of life.
But there is value in decluttering. One way of looking at it is that you spend less time searching for things in a scurry and less time accessing essentials, leading to more time with the things and people that spark joy.
If it weren’t for moving house, I probably would not have seen the value in decluttering, and I wouldn’t feel this newfound connection to my immediate environment. While disconnecting from your environment personally can create clutter, leading to increased stress and decreased focus,17 disconnecting from the environment on a global scale can lead to mass extinction and poisoning the landscape,18 which I see as the collective clutter and uncleanliness of our collaborative home.
I now see the value in Shintoism, and feel that if each of us adopted similar rituals in our day-to-day lives to express more gratitude to the planet and take better care of her (and her belongings), we could reduce the ramifications of consumerism and restore her health.