Engineered for Joy?

I recently learned about a popular decluttering method that invites you to ask if some item you own brings you joy. Your answer to this simple, straightforward question determines whether or not you should keep the item. If it brings you joy you keep it, if not then you discard or donate it. And in this way you declutter your life and move toward greater peace and joy.

The KonMari Method, as it is known, was developed by the Japanese tidying consultant Marie Kondo and popularized in her 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Of course, you probably already knew as much. I seem to have been an outlier in my ignorance of the KonMari Method.

I’m temperamentally attracted by minimalism, but I’ve not exactly ordered my life around the practice. But that question—Does it spark joy?—has  lingered in my mind.

It has lingered, I think, because there’s something both appealing and yet disconcerting about the formulation. On the one hand, it seems obvious that many of us own much more than we could possibly justify and that we are not happier for it. We would do well, then, to purge our lives of superfluous stuff and all the better to do so for the sake of joy.

Not surprisingly, I also thought about how this is not a bad question to ask of our technology, especially the digital accoutrements of our daily lives. Does a smartphone bring me joy? Does Facebook bring me joy? Does Twitter bring me joy? Etc. How many of our digital tools actually make us happier? How many of them do we continue to use against our better judgment and not without a small measure of self-loathing? Why do we carry on with them? Why can’t we let them go? The answers will be complicated, I’m sure, but it’s worth our time to ask the questions.

Kondo’s question also interestingly draws our attention to the emotional valence of the objects in our lives rather than, say, their instrumental value. It suggests that our material environment can be fine-tuned, engineered, or hacked, if you like, so as to regulate our affective lives. Alternatively, insofar as our material environment also structures our memory, the method can also be read as a way engineering how and what we remember.

As I’ve written elsewhere, certain objects are mementos that form the last tenuous tie to some cross-section of our past. Without them, whole swaths of time would almost certainly be lost to us. You recognize such objects when you come across them rarely and each time they recall to mind what you have not thought about since last you encountered the same object. Maybe years pass between such encounters. They are the sorts of things that you always consider throwing away, but can never quite bring yourself to do so. Why? Because it is not the object you would miss—you never think of it as it is—it is some small part of yourself that would become almost certainly irretrievable. It is no small thing for someone to release a part of themselves in this way. Not all that we hoard, it turns out, is made of material stuff.

Do these objects bring me joy? Sometimes, but not always. Should they be discarded because of this? I’m not entirely sure. I can see how hoarding the self in this way can be a dangerous business. I can see as well, though, that it would be wrong to refuse to remember something because it failed to bring me joy.

Should I not remember my mistakes, so that, if nothing else, I might not repeat them. Or should I not remember the suffering of others so that I might work, so far as it is in my power, to alleviate this suffering? Is there any way to recall the loved ones we have lost without an admixture of both joy and sorrow? Would it not be a vice rather than a virtue if I insisted on forgetting all the ways I’ve hurt others or let them down?

Of course, there is something of a moral art involved here. A rightly ordered memory involves both remembering and forgetting. “They tell, and here is the enigma,” Jacques Derrida once wrote, “that those consulting the oracle of Trophonios in Boetia found there two springs and were supposed to drink from each, from the spring of memory and from the spring of forgetting.”

To be clear, I didn’t read Kondo’s book. She may take up these matters for all I know. I realize, too, that I may be thinking about this question in manner that is irrelevant to what chiefly concerns her. Whatever the case may be, I found it useful to think about how our material environment structures our feeling and our remembering.

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