Tidying Up is one of the newest bingeable Netflix series featuring a calming host who visits people’s homes to help them “spark joy in the world through cleaning.”
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill home improvement show, though. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air in the home and garden space. There’s no race against a clock, silly competition, or mention of home values (though there is plenty of clever editing to heighten the dramatic tension between guests). Just minutes into the show, you realize it’s not really a renovation show at all. It’s a show about the humans behind their stuff, something we could use more of in a world increasingly filled with Amazon Prime boxes.
But what’s most different about Tidying Up is its host, Marie Kondo, who radiates empathy and wields enormous influence. Kondo is a big deal. So big a deal, in fact, that her name is now a verb. With millions of book sales and untold millions watching her new show on Netflix, she has an outsized power to persuade hearts and minds.
In many ways, that influence isn’t a bad thing. But despite the good in Kondo’s show and books, her philosophy should give Christians pause.
The Mind-Blowing Success of Tidying Up
Kondo became famous following the release of her 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The book sold 2 million copies and landed on the New York Times Bestseller list. In it, she details her tidying philosophy—”Start by discarding. Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.”—which she calls the KonMari method. In 2016, she released a follow up titled Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. Altogether, her books have now sold 11 million copies.
Her success seems due in large part to her approach. That’s certainly true with Tidying Up, where “the ostensible makeover at the heart of every episode simply involves regular people becoming happier and more at ease in their own homes. Kondo doesn’t scold, shame, or criticize” her clients, writes Sarah Archer for The Atlantic. And that’s true. Kondo never suggests remodeling a space or adding new paint. She simply moves from room to room, helping each area bring less stress and more joy to her clients.
Her tactics are genius. To help clients visualize how many clothes they own, for instance, she has them pile every article of clothing onto their beds. The mountain of threads confronts them with just how much stuff they own, and perhaps just how much their stuff owns them. Kondo’s unstated belief that most of us own far too much stuff resonates in a world where we’re all accumulating mountains of things.
But the KonMari method, for all its positive influences, has a major flaw.
When the Joy Doesn’t Spark
Central to Kondo’s method is the idea that we should only keep those things that “spark joy” in our hearts and minds. “Joy,” as she employs it, is more akin to happiness (a feeling) than true joy (a conscious choice). How do you decide which shirts to keep or which heirlooms to hold on to? According to Kondo, you consider them one at a time and ask yourself if the object sparks joy inside you. If so, keep it. If not, discard it. Simple.
But things get complicated when this philosophy is applied to non-material objects, like relationships. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up opens with testimonials from Kondo’s former clients. The first quote is from someone who (after pairing down, we assume) decided to quit their job and open their own business doing something they had dreamed of since being a child. That’s simple and inspirational enough. But things took a turn in the next testimonial:
“Your course taught me to see what I really need and what I don’t. So I got a divorce. Now I feel much happier.”
This person’s marriage wasn’t sparking joy, so they discarded it like an old pair of jeans. And why not, if your driving philosophy is based on what brings you happiness? The problem with making decisions based on what “sparks joy” is that this is a terrible way to live and is, in fact, an obstacle to a happy life for yourself and others.
How Not to Be Happy
The person that makes decisions and measures their self-worth based on happiness is destined to be unhappy. Happiness is a feeling, and feelings are, by definition, fleeting. To experience a feeling—happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, excitement—is to be in that emotional state for a finite period of time. Your feelings start and stop. They change as often as your circumstances. The search for happiness is a terrible guide to happiness because happiness itself is a moving target.
Your circumstances are largely out of your control, no matter how much control you think you have. We can never control our circumstances enough to ensure our happiness. Jobs are lost, loved ones die, people age, buses are late, coffee spills. The things that made us happy yesterday don’t make us happy today. The things we think will make us happy seldom do. And if they do, the happiness never lasts as long as we’d like.
Pursuing happiness above all else is not only unhelpful in the search for happiness, it’s also harmful to others. The person who makes decisions based solely on what “sparks joy” is a person who doesn’t consider others’ feelings or needs—a far cry from the call to count others more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). This is evident in the person who left their marriage because it no longer made them happy. Basing our life on what brings us happiness crowds out the voices of those around us and makes personal pleasure our end game. But as we’ve seen, to search for happiness by only doing that which makes you happy simply won’t work.
Organization Won’t Lead to Transformation
If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves nodding to the idea of pairing down and cleaning up without realizing we’re saying yes to Kondo’s broader philosophy. Christians should approach Kondo’s books and show with a healthy amount of skepticism, just as they should when consuming any information or entertainment.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world,” wrote the Apostle John (1 John 4:1). Christians must test the spirits they see on TV, in books, and in conversation. Take the good and leave the bad. This mentality is critical for being in the world but not of it.
So go ahead and take some organizational tips from Tidying Up, but don’t fall for the belief that cleaning is life-changing. Don’t mistake the organization of your stuff with the transformation of your heart. No amount of discarding, organizing, and folding can change the human heart. Only God’s Word can do that.