© Gianfranco Tripodo for The New York Times
The Japanese word “tokimeku” means “to spark joy.” Someone who is adopting my method of tidying must take a possession of hers and ask: “Does this spark joy for me?” This question is the sole basis for choosing what things to keep in one’s home, and what to discard.
But can we apply this notion of sparking joy on a larger scale?
We live in a disorganized and chaotic world, much of it outside our control. I read recently that more than 80 billion articles of clothing are produced each year, but only a negligible few are recycled. As people’s buying habits shift and technology moves most everything to the cloud, people have been valuing experiences over material things. Some have even pointed out that we may have reached a critical point in terms of mass consumption — we’ve reached peak stuff.
Though it sometimes may seem like our things are threatening to take over our world, we can focus our energy and determination on choosing what makes us happy, and ultimately change our lives. Asking ourselves whether something sparks joy seems like such a simple process — so simple that many people wonder whether it can really be effective. The strength of the “spark joy” standard, however, lies in its ambiguity.
Let’s consider, for argument’s sake, more precise standards for what to keep or discard, even for something as basic as clothing. Should the number of jackets you own be fewer than 10? Should you discard clothes that you haven’t worn in more than three years?
Rules that adopt concise numerical values may appear to be more practical, which is why society often imposes specific standards on us, such as the amount of money we should earn, the ideal body weight we should maintain or the recommended quantity of food we should consume each day. But what makes one person happy, comfortable and healthy varies for the next, so your individual gold standard can be determined only through your own perspective. This is where the magic question — Does it spark joy? — comes into play.
Continually assessing whether the belongings in your life spark joy allows you to hone your judgment. Over time, your ability to identify what is worth keeping will extend from your home to your career to your relationships. You will be able to discern what makes you happiest and most contented in other aspects of your life.
I don’t mean to suggest that tidy homes full of satisfied people who act in accordance with what sparks joy will cure all of our planet’s ills. Yet I believe that people who are pleased with the course and direction of their lives and who have seen what their own determination can achieve can help create a kinder, better world.
I’d like to share some ideas on how you can use the concept of tokimeku in your own life.
Before you start deciding what sparks joy in your life, you must first get a true sense of the problems you face. For example, when organizing clothes, I ask that you to take out all the clothes you own and gather them in one spot, so that you can visually comprehend how much you own.
What we don’t often realize is that the furniture and closets in which we store our clothing have a remarkable way of concealing truths we would rather not see (a pilled sweater, for instance, that does not bring any joy). It’s perfectly fine to take advantage of this masking effect on a small scale, but when the amount of things that you don’t need continually increases — along with the time and space that you devote to accumulating those things — you will find that it becomes harder to lie to yourself.
We also work in much the same way. We often hide our problems inside the closet of our hearts as if they never existed. Whenever my mind clouds over and I feel overwhelmed, I immediately take out a sketchbook. I write down all the emotions that I feel and the possible reasons behind them across a blank white page.
Once you’ve pinpointed your problems, identify specific solutions. For each problem, assign a concrete task such as “contact and consult a professional” or “reply immediately with an email.” These actions should be as clear and specific as possible. Indeed, the ultimate goal of organizing is to remedy the state of untidiness and prevent its recurrence.
When choosing these actions, you must never forget to ask yourself whether each action sparks joy and makes sense for you. Once you’ve compiled a list, all you have to do next is serenely execute these tasks.
I also keep a to-do list in my sketchbook. Each time I complete a task, I put a checkmark next to it. As I complete the tasks one by one, I get a joyful feeling of lightness, as though I have completely finished tidying up my home. It sounds simple, but this is exactly the moment that sparks joy for me.
The “spark joy” standard for tidiness depends on the individual. You cannot force people to tidy, nor should you try. But there can be communal applications for this idea. More and more, I feel that the question of whether something sparks joy becomes all the more effective when people can exchange views and share a common vision for the future.
Understanding and appreciating the concept of tokimeku in the midst of a confusing and disorderly world will allow us to clarify our ideals, and help us gain confidence in our ability to lead productive lives and develop a sense of responsibility to those around us. From there, we can act with focus and certainty while improving our lives and our beautiful — if still very messy — world.