Marie Kondo, the author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” tells us to keep belongings that give us joy and happiness, and let everything else go.  It resonated with many people, and decluttering has become a big trend.  Many people are feeling happier by giving up a lot of things.

It was news to many of us that there was “magic” in tidying-up that would make us happy.  Since we don’t mean to collect clutter when we shop, we don’t realize until we start “decluttering” that our belongings, supposedly a source of value and satisfaction, have somehow turned into clutter.  Where does the shift occur then?   

It’s hard to know because we don’t have a good method to measure customer satisfaction brought about by acquiring products. Of course there are highly regarded marketing experts and sophisticated techniques focused on evaluating satisfaction from a specific or single product/service.  For example, they would assess: “more customers are satisfied with an iPhone compared to other smartphones.”  But no one has really tried to understand the effect of the accumulation of such products on our overall satisfaction. If you like electronic gadgets, will you feel happier if you get an iPad, Kindle, Amazon Echo and Google VR in addition to an iPhone?  Will it increase your happiness x5?

We don’t know the answer, but somehow we have been assuming a linear correlation between the number of acquired products and the level of satisfaction. 

We are starting to realize that it’s not the case.  There is no such simple correlation.  Sure it is a pleasure to shop and acquire stuff. But only up to a certain level.  Why?  Because our brain has limited capacity.  We can only process so much information at once.  If you are surrounded by too much stuff, you will start feeling distracted, overwhelmed and stressed.  You are mired into a sea of stuff and start losing control.

Figure tidying up

The figure above is a hypothetical relationship between the number of things we own, and our feeling; it was inspired by the Yerkes-Dodson Law, and describes an empirical relationship between arousal and performance.  It assumes that humans tend to perform best when we are moderately aroused: not too bored, not too stressed.

We buy stuff believing it will add some value to our lives.  And we keep going on and on and on until we pass the optimal point and start feeling stressed and anxious.  Then we finally decide we went too far, and start decluttering.  Decluttering is an action to re-tune our senses at an optimal level. When we return to the optimal level, we feel that things are under control.  Yes, we want to control our own lives.  We don’t want to be controlled by stuff.

We’d better focus on the marginal satisfaction a new product will deliver.  The first several items will give us a lot of satisfaction and pleasure.  But at some point, the return will start diminishing.  And eventually, there will NO incremental satisfaction — there will only be stress and frustration!

Probably it’s not decluttering per se that is giving you tremendous satisfaction, it’s the fact that you found your own optimal level where you can feel comfortable and happy.

Yerkes-Dodson Law is very helpful to understand how we would feel when faced with more or less stuff.  Visit Chapter 1: Power of Zero for more on satisfaction and its relationship to more/less, leveraging Yerkes-Dodson Law.