These days we are all obsessed with paring down. But is it really satisfying?
I recently discovered the secret to livening up even the dullest conversation: introduce the topic of clutter. Everyone I meet seems to be waging a passionate, private battle against their own stuff, and they perk up as soon as you mention it.
“I don’t buy anything—no clothes, no shoes,” a woman who works in the French fashion industry told me. A New Yorker on a de-cluttering bender explained: “There’s too much in my head, there’s too much stuff in my house, too.” Another friend said when his girlfriend got angry, she called him the clutter of her life.
Clutter isn’t a new problem, of course. But suddenly, it’s not just irritating—it’s evil. If you’re not living up to your potential, clutter is probably the culprit. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the top-ranked book on The New York Times list of self-help books, promises that, once your house is orderly, you can “pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.”
This isn’t just an American problem. Kondo’s book was a bestseller in her native Japan, too, as well as in Taiwan, South Korea and Germany (nearly 30 translations are planned). Karen Kingston, a British clutter expert who consults around the world, says her online courses, including an advanced class called Zero Procrastination, draw students from at least 18 countries.
Not all of the world’s clutter is created equal. Kingston says British clutter tends to include pieces of unwanted inherited furniture (“accept the love that was given with the gift, but let the physical item go,” she advises). Americans have fewer heirlooms, but can become sentimentally attached to new purchases, she says.
Germans are among the biggest subscribers to her decluttering courses. Though when a colleague emails her ‘clutter photos’ from potential clients there, she’s often at a loss to find the mess (in Germany, “It’s not so much that they have a lot of clutter, it’s more the fact that they want to be optimally organised,” Kingston explains).
A French survey found that, among west Europeans, Italians had the greatest number of ‘unused objects’ in their homes. Perhaps that’s because extended families are living together, merging their clutter.
In America, decluttering can be a born-again experience. It was transformative for Ryan Nicodemus, co-creator of The Minimalists blog, who describes how he was an overworked, divorced, depressive who drank and used drugs—until he got rid of 80% of his belongings. “A month later, my entire perspective had changed. And then I thought to myself, maybe some people might find value in my story,” he said.
Clutter is having its moment in part because we’ve accumulated a critical mass of it. The cascade began 25 years ago, when China started to export huge amounts of cheap clothes, toys and electronics. Cut-rate retailers and big-box stores encouraged us to stockpile it all.
And we did. A study of middle-class families in Los Angeles found that just one in four families could fit a car in its garage (it also found that mothers’ stress levels rose as they described their household mess). Americans who struggled to afford health insurance and college could nevertheless buy lots of stuff, sometimes on credit.
But as stuff got cheaper, it lost status. Robberies declined in rich countries, in part because it wasn’t worth risking prison for a $150 TV. Reality shows about hoarders made having lots of things even less appealing.
Now, in some well-off circles, people boast about how little they own, or curate small collections of carefully selected items. The richest Americans increasingly consume expensive experiences—like a trip to Bhutan—rather than material goods.
The middle classes are tiring of their possessions, too. There are online communities for people who have vowed to remove 40 bags of stuff from their homes over 40 days, or to pare back to just 100 possessions. In her book A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy, the artist Sarah Lazarovic describes the year she spent painting pictures of things instead of buying them.
It’s hard to resist the decluttering fever. I, too, spend my weekends filling bags with cookbooks, toys and vintage dresses, and then hauling them away. For the first time in years, I can lay my hands on any one of my sweaters.
But the more stuff I shed, the more I realise that we declutterers feel besieged by more than just our possessions. We’re also overwhelmed by the intangible detritus of 21st-century life: unreturned emails; unprinted family photos; the ceaseless ticker of other people’s lives on Facebook; the heightened demands of parenting; and the suspicion that we’ll be checking our phones every 15 minutes, forever. I can sit in an empty room, and still get nothing done.
It’s consoling to think that, beneath all these distractions, we’ll discover our shining, authentic selves, or even achieve a state of ‘mindfulness’. But I doubt it. I’m starting to suspect that the joy of ditching all of our stuff is just as illusory as the joy of acquiring it all was. Less may be more, but it’s still not enough.
By Pamela Druckerman