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Sparking Joy: An Experiment in Making Big Decisions

Could Marie Kondo's Tidying Up process work for bigger decisions than closets and clutter?

girl with sparkler
A new test for all your decisions: Does this spark joy?

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Joining the joy leap club

America is fascinated with the idea of sparking joy by tidying up (or is it tidying up by sparking joy?). Either way, the popularity of Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up reveals that many of us are looking for a gentler, more effective method of bringing order to our lives.

Dive into the Kon-Marie method and you may find that you get more than just your home, possessions and relationships in better shape. You might also discover—as I did—the value of applying the sparking joy approach to all your life and even in business. My accidental path to joy as a trustworthy guide recently transitioned me to independent copywriting in Dallas after a decade as a corporate marketing writer—despite my opposition to the idea.

Can you trust joy?

Trusting joy isn’t all that risky when you’re deciding whether to keep your old college gym shorts or that slightly melted spatula. But as a way to make weighty decisions? It can seem…well, untrustworthy. Too selfish. Too illogical. Too granola.

But when you think about all the other drivers that come into play with everyday decision-making—obligation, guilt, scarcity mindsets, people pleasing, or fear of pretty much everything—the question is, are those emotions better qualified to direct us toward good decisions? Do they result in better outcomes? Au contraire. We know these factors cloud the issue and add to the struggle.

Truth is, joy can be tricky, too, because it can be confused with the ego.

“The ego has two intentions: to keep us safe and to bring us pleasure,” says my friend and colleague, Life Coach and Corporate Wellbeing Consultant Arch Fuston. “Joy often disguises itself as one of those two in the presence of discomfort. Recognizing the difference is super important, especially when big decisions are involved.”

I have found that while joy can spring up suddenly sometimes, it takes a good bit of soul-searching to trust you’ve tapped into the real thing. When you do, you discover and learn to trust your gut and innate purpose, which, Arch contends, “is where you find truth.”

3 ways to make every decision easier

If you want to give joy a try as a decision-making guide, be sure to include these three components that make the Kon-Marie method work. It’s up to you to apply them beyond tidying up:

1. Discover what to keep, not what to toss

Ms. Kondo points out an insightful contrast between cleaning and tidying up: “Cleaning means confronting nature” (dust and dirt), whereas “tidying up means confronting yourself.”

In the face of needed change, we frequently confront our negative traits in harsh ways, but Ms. Kondo’s tidying up confrontation is uniquely positive in two ways that are so subtle they’re perhaps invisible at the surface:

  • It puts you face to face with something good about yourself, namely, what sparks joy for you.

  • It isn’t about deciding what to get rid of, it’s about discovering what to keep.

Compared to the chaotic, unkind, insensible and false reasoning that drives us to poor decisions, the idea that making changes from a positive perspective like joy could result in better outcomes is pretty intriguing.

2. Take the choice out of the choice

When you can only choose one or the other, the stakes get so high that you can become paralyzed. In the Kon-Marie method, each item stands alone, never in competition or comparison.

The secret is in the confrontation – standing face to face with each choice independently of the others, putting aside thinking for a moment to listen and feel. Ms. Kondo has her clients hold each item and ask whether it sparks joy with no thought of how it relates to other items. You could end up keeping four red shirts…and that’s okay.

In other applications, listening for joy can have another benefit. Taking the choice out of the choice may show that neither option is what you need, which may allow another possibility you hadn’t even considered to come to light. Apparently, joy knows what you should do. It lives in the moment while believing the answer for tomorrow is within your reach. It gives you peace that waiting for that new option is okay, too.

3. Say thank you and good-bye

In Ms. Kondo’s world of closets and clutter, clients are asked in the beginning to join her in thanking their home for all it has given them. As they go along, if their answer to the joy query on any item is no, they thank the item for serving them, then discard or donate it.

In getting organized, bookending the entire process of decision-making in gratitude gives Ms. Kondo’s clients clarity, perspective, and the ability to avoid being undermined by the inevitable mental resistance inherent in cleaning out or making any kind of change (i.e. This is wasteful; This was a gift, therefore I must keep it; or What if I need it later?)

What an incredible concept to apply to all the challenging decisions we have to make! Can you imagine what that level of gratitude would do in life-altering dilemmas? Could gratitude be the secret to letting go of what we gave up when we decided what to keep?

Tosser’s regret

Warning: Trusting joy as a guidepost for big decisions feels scary, as I learned when I turned down every job offer in a 4-month job search using this criteria. Declining the last one in the pipeline officially and unceremoniously launched me into a new, uncharted independent career a full year before planned. Somehow, joy took me where my fear wouldn’t let me go. My first reaction was to chew my fingernails down to my knuckles.

What have you done? my lizard brain shrieked.

As far as I know, Ms. Kondo doesn’t address that moment when we wish we hadn’t thrown something out. Possibly this is because gratitude does such a good job of providing closure that’s she’s never seen tosser’s regret. Of course, mistakes are possible, but that panic is usually just your return to fear and uncertainty rather than leaning on joy and gratitude.

In my case, my brain shouted “Back pedal!!” but I decided that I had put all my weight on this concept and now it was time to see it through. And so far, so good. Even though I don’t see as far down this path as I’d like to, I’m making a living and new possibilities frequently appear. Joy dictates that I live in the present and allow my future to unfold, which means things move slower than I like.

The upside? When you choose joy, you get joy, no matter how things turn out. I have to believe it will guide me to the next step.

If you can't leap, slither

I didn't exactly leap; I eliminated non-joy-bringing options and what was left was what I wanted but believed I couldn't have. Since this is still an experiment for me, you might want to start smaller than I did. Apply it to your wardrobe, your friendships or your calendar. If it’s been awhile since you’ve felt joy, it might take some time to recognize and trust it. As you get more comfortable with it, you can try it with bigger dilemmas.

Go ahead and make your pro/con lists, your spreadsheets and your charts ‘til you exhaust your thinking. Then hush your shoulds and listen to your heart for a change.

It’s trying to answer this one simple question: Does this spark joy for me? Originally written for and posted in Grant Thornton, LLP’s People & Culture Alumni portal. Need a ghostwriter, journalist or marketing copywriter? Check out my portfolio.


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