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Words to Watch: Spark Joy

Spring cleaning season is approaching, but it seems like people have been in a cleaning frenzy all year long. Credit for that goes to Marie Kondo (author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the star of the new Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo) – her name is pretty much eponymous with decluttering. Scroll through social media, and you’ll likely see posts from people proudly proclaiming they’re spending their free time “Marie Kondo-ing” their sock drawers and basement closets.

But how did someone make the decidedly un-glamorous task of cleaning the latest trend? After all, there’s never been a lack of resources – from Pinterest to professional organizers – to inspire and assist with decluttering and organization. And even Marie Kondo’s method, although simple, methodic, and very prescriptive, is not all that removed from the strategies recommended by other self-help gurus. 

What’s different about Marie Kondo is she doesn’t stop at the tangible benefits of decluttering (like a streamlined wardrobe or easier access to kitchen supplies), but has coined language to describe the intangible effect of tidying up, which is that everything that remains will “spark joy”. And by tying active, emotional language to the often mind-numbing process of cleaning – and not just daily chores like sweeping and the dishes, but tasks like organizing garage tools or donating that college wardrobe that get pushed off season after season – she’d made it exciting and hopeful.

So what does it mean for something to spark joy? The phrase is a loose translation of the Japanese word “tokimeku,” which is more precisely defined as “throb; palpitate; pulsate; pulse; beat fast”. On her Netflix show’s first episode (about young parents who hope “Marie Kondo-ing” their home will “spark joy” in their marriage), she explains: “You feel it when you hold a puppy. Or when you wear your favorite outfit. It’s a warm and positive feeling.”

In the KonMari method, whether or not something sparks joy is used to determine if you keep or toss it. You start by piling everything in one place and then take each item in your hand one-by-one to assess if it sparks joy. “You will only keep items that spark joy for you,” she says.  

She acknowledges it’s hard to translate the emotion: “Some of you may not know how that feels yet, but please do not worry. Your sensitivity to joy will be honed as you progress through the tidying process.” But perhaps the feelings were begging to be tidily packaged into a snappy phrase because the language is resonating. And in a telling sign that it’s language with staying power, it’s repeated often, both earnestly and ironically. A search for #sparkjoy on Instagram results in over 177,000 posts – and many of these posts on Instagram and elsewhere don’t even mention Marie Kondo. 
The real testament of the power of “spark joy” is that the phrase has taken on a life of its own. It’s no longer just used in the context of decluttering closets and basements but has pervaded popular culture as a framework for decision-making of all kinds – from creating a wedding invitation list to deciding what job to take.

The philosophy that seems like common sense – obviously we should only keep around friends who bring positivity into our lives or stick with a career that gives us fulfillment. But, having language that succinctly captures complex emotions can help us make, and justify, what seem like hard choices.