Saturday, February 23, 2019

Marie Kondo's Netflix Series: Thoughts on Minimalism and Magic

A Different Kind of Home Improvement Show

Given that I work in the field of home improvement, one might expect that I watch lots of home improvement shows, but the truth is that I primarily watch HGTV while sitting in the dentist's chair!  Even so, when I learned that Marie Kondo had a Netflix series, "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo", I looked forward to watching it.  I read Marie Kondo's book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, when it first came out and anticipated that the show would be interesting as well.

In the Netflix series, Kondo guides 8 households through her unique KonMari Method to pare down their possessions one category at a time in a sequential order.  Her five sequential categories are:

  • Clothing
  • Books 
  • Papers
  • Komono (Miscellaneous Items)
  • Sentimental Items

The KonMari Method involves piling all possessions from within one category into a single location and then picking up each item from the pile and deciding whether the item "sparks joy".  Items that "spark joy" remain in the home and are stored in an orderly way; items that do not are thanked for their service and discarded/donated.

Kondo's show captured my attention for exactly the same reason that traditional design shows often don't: it focused on how homeowners feel in their homes rather than just on the aesthetic perfection of the finished space.  As this NPR segment pointed out, Kondo's show merges the genre of home improvement television with a new angle: "self-care culture".  

Though each episode of "Tidying Up" included decluttered "after" room photos, the real "after" was the improved emotional state of the homeowners.  They smiled and laughed more.  They wore brighter colors.  They just seemed...happy.

Watching the series, I was reminded of my wonderful Italian grandma, who used to love watching "Wheel of Fortune".  Whenever someone won, she'd celebrate with them, exclaiming, "God bless!  Looka how happy she is!"  As a viewer of "Tidying Up", I had a similar, "Looka how happy" reaction.   I enjoyed seeing homeowners feeling better in their homes, much as I do with my clients in their homes. 

Is Marie Kondo's Netflix Series About Minimalism?

Many journalists have described Marie Kondo as a minimalist, but I think that's an oversimplification.  She supports approaching ones possessions and home with mindfulness, intentionality, and gratitude.   In both her book and her show, Kondo's focus is less on discarding and more on leaning into joy.  To use an art analogy, the emphasis is on the positive space rather than just the negative space.  The emphasis is on celebrating and respecting what is there rather than what is not there.

When Mario, a homeowner in episode 7 of the Netflix series, whittles his sneaker collection from 160 pairs down to "below 45" pairs,  Kondo steps into his space and declares the change to be "phenomenal".  What kind of minimalist would endorse owning 45 pairs of...anything?  The homeowners featured in "Tidying Up" still have treasured collections and plenty of "stuff" in the after pictures, but they are also visibly relieved after paring down.

There's a Finnish proverb that says, "Happiness is a place between too little and too much."  I think "Tidying Up" shows us the homeowners with their radiant "after" smiles resting in the sweet spot of "just enough", which varies from person to person.  It's not about minimalism per se, but about finding that happy balance in the middle and respecting and appreciating one's own possessions. 

Will Marie Kondo's Method Work Magic For Everyone?

I think that many people can find some element that is useful or helpful in the KonMari method--for example, the wonderfully simple concept of exploring whether an object "sparks joy" as a prerequisite for keeping it.  Kondo's innovative folding method--storing folded items in drawers horizontally rather than vertically--could also be a game changer for many, as it allows all contents to be viewed at once.  But as I watched the series, I thought about some of my adult clients with ADHD and wondered whether the sequential, time-intensive, "marathon" decluttering approach would work for them in their homes.

In a 2017 post about Kondo's book, ADHD coach Dana Rayburn expressed skepticism about whether the method would be realistic for adults with ADHD.  She wrote, "Every card-carrying ADHD adult I know would gather all the books in a pile. Get bored and go do something else.  The pile of books would remain in the middle of the floor for months."

Kondo's suggestion that homeowners hold each object to determine whether it sparks joy also differs from an observation made by Judith Kolberg in her book, Conquering Chronic Disorganization.  In her book, Kolberg, founder of the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (now called the Institute for Challenging Disorganization) describes a phenomenon that she calls "kinetic sympathy" whereby individuals are more likely to choose to keep an object if they physically touch it (as opposed to having another person hold up an item for their appraisal).  She writes, "Lacking formal training in psychology, I am at a loss to explain it, but it is clear that touching a thing can set off an emotional response for chronically disorganized people."  I have witnessed this in my work with clients as well, so this may be helpful to keep in mind for homeowners who struggle with discarding.

Despite these limitations of the KonMari method, I recommend the Netflix series and feel that it offers some valuable tools and insights that many viewers can successfully apply in their own homes. 

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