Why Does Decluttering Feel So Good?

If you’re reading these words, you probably have an interest in minimalism. Good timing.

The following was originally published in Enough-ism: This Minimalist Wants More and on the Enough-ism Podcast.

If you’re reading these very words, you probably have an interest in minimalism. Good timing, by the way. The average American has 300,000 items, according to the LA Times. One in ten Americans, according to The New York Times, rents a storage unit. The average American woman, according to Forbes, owns one outfit for every day of the month.

So, minimalists — those who willingly get their belongings down to nearly nada amidst a consumerist (buy! buy! buy!) society — must have it easy, right? They can easily count and itemize all their things, they don’t pay to store stuff they don’t use or need, but, hey, they probably do laundry like every day, right? Well, the term “minimalist” might conjure up some stereotypes, for sure. Immediate images of, maybe, a soul-searching, semi-wannabe hipster wearing head-to-toe black with nothing but a passport and a glimmer in his eye to spend life as a digital nomad on a never-ending holiday, come to mind.

Maybe a “minimalist” to you is someone whose wardrobe consists of not much really beyond some neutral leggings, canvas sneakers, and no more than a handful of plain white tee-shirts.

But, is owning 33 things better than owning 3,489 things? Who the heck actually counts all their things, anyway?

Moving on, maybe a “minimalist” to you is someone who lives in a blindingly bare, light-filled studio apartment in one of those cool cities that skips all the shitty seasons. Their home’s perhaps like an Etsy store threw up inside of a Pinterest board. The walls are covered in just enough greenery to make it homey. Not that crazy plant lady homey. Just, ya know, that delicious kind of homey that makes you want to throw away everything you own.

Paperclips are so 2012, anyway

Take a moment now, in your mind’s eye, to imagine what your own home looks like. Mentally, maybe right now you find yourself assessing how many paper clips are really in your desk drawer — you know the drawer. No, not that junk drawer. The other junk drawer. You might ask yourself:

“When’s the last time I used a paperclip, anyway? 2012?”

You answer yourself simultaneously, both with a firm response and in an open-ended sense of doubt regarding how that pile of paper clips you’ve never quite noticed before collecting cobwebs in your backup junk drawer is only one small hurdle of millions keeping you from being a “real” minimalist.

Say, what’s a “real” minimalist, anyway? You may find yourself, or have once found yourself, asking pressing questions about a minimalist lifestyle, perhaps out of a burning yearning to live a different kind of life. One with both less and more.

But, hold up. Can you really be a minimalist in today’s modern world? I mean, is getting a neon green manicure for Saint Patrick’s Day really minimalist? How many pairs of socks should a minimalist own? Should they all be black or does a satisfying deep navy still count? You’re not a minimalist if you have a middle name, right? What about a hyphenated first name? What do minimalists buy, anyway? Do experiences really make people way happier than things?

Image for post
Image for post

Less stuff means life’s less rough

Being a minimalist is about one thing: minimalizing your thoughts and cutting out the noise. Minimalism is about working backward, stripping yourself of the identity you’ve created for yourself, and deprogramming yourself back to basics.

Maybe you or someone you know has “Marie Kondo-ed” their home and felt really freaking good after. The question is, why? The primary reason is your mental clutter dissipates.

In Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she describes going through different areas of your house and organizing them. When I came across this book, I thought I was pretty far in my minimalism journey. I was wrong. One section she talked about was going through your keyring. I realized then that my keyring was a tangled mess and I always took an extra four seconds upon unlocking or locking my door to figure out which key was which. I ended up using a bit of hot red nail polish to differentiate one key from the next.

Changes like this may seem too small to matter, but they are mighty. According to Medical News Today, big stressors that shake up the momentum of our daily lives are indeed just that — stressors. But having a big argument with a friend initiates the kind of stress that can cause big health problems later in life, like depression. This is because these kinds of emotions tend to linger from day to day and aren’t necessarily one-off events.

Granted, a job loss is a one-off event with a ripple effect that may last a while. But researchers argue that higher levels of bad feelings that are hard to shake are associated with chronic conditions a decade out.

The trendy New Age concept floating around currently about how to manage “stress” — Bubble baths! Face masks! Meditation apps! Retail therapy! Red wine! — perhaps doesn’t quite touch the crux of the issue. In this way, it’s the tiny actions that make up our lives that often stress us out the most. Take consuming media, for instance.

According to qz.com, Americans spend eleven hours a day consuming media. Sure, you’re consuming media now by reading these words, but that’s good. You’re looking to expand your mind, not just expand your cable package so you can try and figure out what a Tiger King is, anyway. (I have no idea and I’m cool with that.)

Those apps that track how much time you might be spending on Instagram are hardly ones someone looks at and says, smiling,

“Wow, I wish I spent more time scrolling mindlessly through my feeds. I feel so much better anyway, when I’m on social media.”

Just like I went through my keyrings to organize them, consider going through your habits and, well, organizing and decluttering them.

The thing is, Marie Kondo and her magic of tidying up is only the tip of the iceberg. What happens once you’ve cleared out your space, keyrings, junk drawers, and all? This is a key question to ponder, no matter where you are in your journey.

Minimalism (literally) starts the day you’re born

Perhaps you’ve already started downsizing your belongings. Perhaps you’ve downsized so much so far, all you have left is not much beyond a suitcase and a smile. Or, perhaps you live amidst piles of things, too many paperclips to count, and all. Wherever you are, that’s okay. Just pause. Ask yourself:

Why in the heck does it feel so damn good to get rid of all my junk?

I have a key theory about this. Namely, it has to do with Native American culture regarding something that, according to the Sherman Indian Museum’s website, dates back to the seventeenth century.

Here, a woman who is about to give birth spends a great deal of time in nature, by herself. During this time before a big life transition is about to occur, she focuses on calming and quieting her mind, connecting to the smell, sights, and sounds of the mountains, the earth, the sky, and the stars. She makes space for what’s to come.

Image for post
Image for post

After her child is born, an experience the mother executes solo, she still stays in nature for a while with her newborn before they both join into their family and societal circles. Together, child and mother learn to listen, to feel, and to experience life well their physical bodies and the thoughts that seem to run these bodies. The woman would then return to their regularly scheduled duties.

According to teachinghistory.org and the Sherman Indian Museum’s website, pregnant women from the Mohawk and Mahican tribes living in what’s now New York…

“…depart alone to secluded place near a brook, or a stream of water … and prepare a shelter for themselves with mats and coverings, where provided with provisions necessary for them, they await their delivery without the company or aid of any person. They rarely are sick from childbirth [and] suffer no consequences from the same.”

✽✽✽

Insert short tangent here. Now, it’s perhaps worthy of note that there is a mention within these sources about how such birth descriptions aren’t too accurate since they were primarily written by European men (who weren’t allowed to attend or see a woman giving birth). That’s perhaps the topic of an entirely different book, but one perhaps worth mentioning for clarity, and hopefully the concept still resonates. End tangent.

✽✽✽

Getting back to the point, compare this birth experience, for example, to that of a typical new Western mother’s experience. This woman may be overstimulated from long before the final trimester with societal pressure for her experience to be a certain way based on preconditioning. Baby showers with pink and blue balloons, Amazon wish lists, gender reveal parties that get 200 Instagram likes, painting the new nursery with organic paint.

In short, she’s a little stressed.

She goes into labor. Her ambulance ride to the hospital perhaps costs as much as a mortgage payment. More stress. Should she take “Mommy & Me” classes? To breastfeed or to bottle feed? The list of internal conflicts she experiences and her expanding “to do” list “just because” goes on.

Again, stress. So much so, after her child is born, maybe she favors slapping an iPad in front of him to keep him quiet so she can work from home while interrupted on Zoom. She promised herself she would never become one of “those” parents, but here we are.

Maybe one day she becomes one of those study statistics about how tiny stressors that seem to never end spark chronic conditions a decade later.

✽✽✽

What you surround yourself with shapes who you become. Both babies will begin their life in very different ways. Perhaps the modernized, iPad-savvy child will grow up yearning for more instead of learning the power of simplicity immediately after leaving the womb. Perhaps the Native American child will grow up connecting to how the art of what’s already around us — the streams, the deer, and the foliage — fill us up spiritually already.

Modern society is slowly catching up with this kind of mindset. Forest bathing, for instance, which is essentially the art of spending time in the forest to improve your health, is something Western society has been familiar with since the 19th century. According to Forbes’ mention of a study in the journal Environmental Research from the University of East Anglia, this is why so many parks during this time period — the 19th century — were built in cities.

It’s not rocket science that when you step outside on a gorgeous summer day compared to being in a dark, cramped bedroom for hours, you feel alive. Yes, being in nature reduces your blood pressure, lowers your heart rate, and all that good stuff. But, it also connects you back to who you are.

Good intentions, meh results

Every time you throw away another item in your home, one step closer to your minimalist journey, perhaps you’re one step closer to living like you’re intended. With both nothing and everything all around you. Your identity dissipates. Your labels diminish. You begin to blend in with your environment, not fight it.

In this way, when you feel good while decluttering, it’s because you suddenly recognize how every item in your home or space has energy. Let’s say you own a beat-up pair of tennis shoes where your big toes both stick out when you put them on and you can only wear them when it’s not raining.

Image for post
Image for post

But, you wear them. You wear them because once, in junior year of high school, your mom gave them to you right before she passed away. These shoes are perhaps your last remaining bridge between you in the physical realm and her in the afterlife.

What would happen if you threw away those shoes?

Sad emotions may come up. But, recognize that these sad emotions also come up when you see the shoes too there in front of you, too. Getting rid of the shoes is hard because you haven’t gotten rid of the emotion.

The key to decluttering intelligently is removing all items from your life that trigger negative emotions to let the sunlight into your life. When all that remains among your material possessions makes you happy — deeply happy, not just pretending to feel happy because it brings you a sense of status or creates a role you’ve trapped yourself willingly into over the years — you feel happy. Throwing away your shoes is throwing away pain. By doing so, you’re making space in your home and in your mind. This is the secret to improving the overall quality of your life.

Consider, perhaps, taking a picture of the shoes before you throw them away. According to a study from The Journal of Marketing, doing so helps people relieve stress tied to items. According to Good Therapy.org and The American Institute of Stress, stress is “America’s leading health problem.”

We live in a world where our “fight or flight” responses are always on. Have you ever watched your Fitbit’s heart rate monitor data to see why your heart rate spiked so high at 3:32 PM last Monday when you don’t remember doing anything in particular?

Oh. It was that email you received about an updated deadline. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Control what stress you can as best you can. Maybe not the emails, at least, but whether or not the beat-up running shoes take up space in your closet versus in your phone’s cloud storage, sure.

As Marie Kondo famously says, ask yourself regarding every item you wish to declutter,

“Does this item spark joy?”

I invite you to go deeper. Ask yourself,

“Does letting go of this item spark room in my heart for something brighter?”

“Does letting go of this item align with who I am, and with who I’m not?”

Work to think of yourself not related to your name, your job, your race, your gender, or your favorite cocktail. Realize who you are when all of that falls to the wayside.

Now, that’s minimalism.

❈ ❈ ❈

If you enjoyed this article, listen to the full podcast on iTunes.

❈ ❈ ❈

Thanks for reading this excerpt from Enough-ism: This Minimalist Wants More. Can’t get enough of Enough-ism? ❈ Visit IAmEnoughism.com ❈ and follow @IAmEnoughism on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Medium. Check out the Enough-ism Podcast, now available on iTunes and YouTube. | Images obtained from UnSplash.com.

About the author: Yugen Bond, B.Msc., is a metaphysics writer, podcast host, and reiki master who once despised meditation, had both too much and nothing to wear, and didn’t know how to slow down her thoughts. What a journey it’s been. Time to share it with the world, especially with you. Business inquiries: enoughismpodcast@gmail.com.

This minimalist wants more. | IAmEnoughism.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store