The Antidote to Clutter? Joy

Stress can spout from everywhere—work obligations, family tension, a severe lack of self-care…and also, stuff. The gradual and unchecked accumulation of objects can weigh on you—the stacks of mail, piles of clothes, all the stuff that piles up in the same corners and surfaces.

meQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce explains that at the heart of clutter lies indecision, and at the root of that indecision is fear. The “what if I need it” fear can erode your resilience if you let it.

One particular problem I was having was with my closet. Every time I went in there, I saw the gaping maw of clothes I don’t wear and yoga mats I don’t use. Every time I looked, it made me feel bad. And the drawers? Forget it. They were jammed so tightly I couldn’t shut them, and so I didn’t. They hung just a little bit open at all times, and that was stressing me out, too. Something had to be done.

There are tons of books out there on decluttering. But the one that seems to be getting oodles of attention these days is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese author and organization expert Marie Kondo. While most declutter methods tell you just to throw out anything you’re not using, Kondo has a far gentler, more spirit-centered approach that appealed to me.

Having spent her entire life obsessed with organization, Kondo asked herself, why do I have to keep tidying up over and over? Why can’t I do it once and be done? And that’s the system she uses and teaches now. The big shift for her was not focusing on what to get rid of, but what to keep. She says that tidying up should be less of an ongoing chore and more like a festival—a celebration of what you love, and what you no longer need.

The key question at the heart of her method is this: “Does this spark joy?” When you hold that green corduroy jacket, or those sneakers, or even a memento you’ve had lying around your home, ask yourself, does it? Because that joy, and that alone, should guide your efforts, she says. I tried it, and held every item of clothing in my hands that day, and asked that same question. Not, “should I keep it?” or “will I wear it?” but “how does this make me feel?” And I was shocked how much easier it was to let stuff go.

At meQuilibrium, we believe that resilience doesn’t come from “not stressing,” but from building a connection to what works, and what gives you strength—and, yes, what gives you joy. But you can’t know what brings you joy unless you tune in and become mindful. Now, whether a pile of junk mail will ever trigger joy? Doubtful. But what about the trickier things? The stuff that you keep around but aren’t sure why—and that includes the intangible (including some relationships). When you realize that your life is composed of what you choose to keep in it, well, you can see how much control you have.

(Read: Why mindfulness is more than a fad.)

Clutter isn’t just just junk mail or unsorted socks; it’s the thoughts and emotions that get in your way, too. Life is difficult enough to cope with when you’re not climbing over and around the things you don’t want there in the first place.

So, every time you go to buy or accept a thing you don’t need, or decide to “put up” with a situation or relationship you really don’t want, or feel yourself just “dealing” instead of thriving—ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”

You can’t eliminate everything in your life you don’t like, but you can decide to actively choose and accept what you want based on how it makes you think, feel, and behave. And when you start asking yourself that question, instead of just sucking it up, you’ll feel more in control of the life you have—and more resilient to boot.

(More on how to declutter your brain.)