Does Decluttering Really Spark Joy?

It’s been suggested that living by minimalist values can have a robust effect on one’s mental health, specifically curative effects relating to depression. The self-titled “Minimalists” -- Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus (the latter a former corporate executive) -- discuss their experiences with the curative properties of minimalism in their film "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.” But is there science to back up their claims? How can minimalism help you in your fight against mental illness? Let’s take a look.

Materialism and Well Being

The Minimalist Phenomenon

Materialism and Wellbeing

In a 2016 thesis, Rik Pieters of Tulberg University put forth the idea that materialism is linked to loneliness. With a 6 year study of over 2,500 consumers, Pieters found that loneliness can lead to habits of materialism, and vice versa, acts of materialism only bolster feelings of loneliness. And it’s been shown that loneliness leads to depression. So it makes sense then what the Minimalists are saying. Materialism leads to loneliness leads to depression, and cutting out materialism (i.e. minimalism) will cut out depression!

decluttered wooden hangers in a tidy minimalist closet
Can simply clearing your personal spaces help to alleviate depression? It can depend on who you ask.

Well not quite, Pieters found that the relationship between materialism and loneliness is bidirectional, that is it goes both ways. He also found that the exchange isn’t equal. In fact, he found that loneliness leads to materialistic habits more than such habits lead to loneliness. So, materialism is more a symptom of loneliness than the other way around.

He also found that what he called subtypes of materialism have no relationship whatsoever with loneliness. He even says, “seeking possessions for material mirth decreased loneliness and was unaffected by it.” The materialism you really need to watch out for is consumerism for the sake of ego. Seeing possessions as “happiness medicine” or as a yardstick to success is unhealthy, Pieters says.

It’s even been suggested by some that filling their personal spaces with as much as possible is a source of happiness. Also known as ‘Maximalism’, the movement points to the often impressive socio-economic statuses of those promoting Minimalism as a litmus for the impracticality of such a lifestyle. Remember, before he was one of ‘The Minimalists’, Nicodemus was making 6 figures a year.

So with science still unsure and testimonies arguing both sides, why is it that Minimalism has taken off?

The Minimalist Phenomenon

It’s invaded every home, every think piece, every lifestyle blog, Minimalism seems to be everyone’s solution to everything. The most recent example being “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” in which a delightful Japanese woman (Marie Kondo) shows Americans how they can declutter their homes and lead happier, healthier lives. She suggests only keeping items in your home that (1) serve a purpose (like kitchen appliances) (2) spark joy (like that sweater, you know the one) or (3) do both.

It’s this second utility that we’re interested in. Only keeping things that spark joy seems to be the key to the curative properties of minimalist values. It hints at the key to both the success of minimalism and maximalism and what the Pieters thesis was talking about: motive. Regardless if you’re emptying your space or filling it, you need to consider why you’re doing it.

a woman, full of joy after switching to a minimalist lifestyle, holds a smiling emoticon in front of her face
How you keep your personal space can have a huge impact on your mental health, but how should you keep that space?

Remember, Pieters’ thesis maintained that using your things as a litmus for success can be damaging. In the same way it can be assumed using your lack of things is just as harming. Think on your motives. Follow minimalism if the space suits you. Follow maximalism if the space suits you. Do these things make you happy? Yes? Then it’s working

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