Winnipeg college class on minimalism moves beyond Netflix hit Tidying Up's focus on stuff
'There's some unpacking she needs to do around the idea of capitalism,' prof says of show creator Marie Kondo
The new series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is one of the most popular shows currently on Netflix, and a Manitoba professor has a theory — along with a critical perspective — on why it's been an instant hit.
"It speaks to the fact that we have overfilled our lives," said Karen Ridd, an instructor in peace and conflict resolution studies at Winnipeg's Menno Simons College.
Tidying Up explores Kondo's theory on how to best go about decluttering our messy spaces, and involves a simple exercise she has helped spread around the world.
Take all your possessions — clothes, books, loose papers, knick-nacks — and stack them on your bed or floor, and ask whether the items spark joy for you. If so, they stay — if not, they go.
Ridd teaches a course all about minimalism and simple living. She and CBC Radio's Up to Speed host Ismaila Alfa discussed the phenomenon that is Tidying Up and how it relates to her minimalism coursework.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length:
Why do you think Tidying Up has become such a huge hit?
We have bigger and bigger houses with more and more stuff, and we have a booming storage industry. Even in our big houses we don't have enough room for all our stuff.
I think one of the things that's becoming more viscerally apparent to us is that this search for stuff is a fruitless endeavour to find something of meaning, and that rather than continue on that path towards more stuff, let's look at what is it that gives value to our lives.
Some of us hold on to items pretty tightly and feel that we need them. So how do students experience simple living in your course?
We try and approach it from a couple of angles, and certainly Marie Kondo is experiencing it from, "How do you minimize the stuff that you have?"
And of course, that's important. We're on a finite planet, and we can't have all this kind of stuff. We need to find ways to consume less.
We also try to approach it from another angle that says, "How do we live more fully the lives that we do have?" Sometimes the stuff actually really gets in the way of being able to engage in our lives.
[Capitalism] has sold us the idea that we need to have stuff in order to be happy.… That's a false bill of goods, and to hold an item and say, 'Does it spark joy?' continues to buy into that.- Karen Ridd
I have the opportunity, for example, to do experiments where [students] choose what they're going to do for three months, and it's going to be a set experiment around voluntary simplicity. They're going to make choices.… What do they want to do that they think would bring more value to their life? Maybe spending more time with their family, maybe learning how to do a skill, like baking bread, maybe more time for art or music.
So, what are the things that are in their lives that are cluttering them? Not necessarily stuff, although that might be something. Things like how much time we spend on social media, or how attached I am to my cellphone — so how can I live the life I want to live?
Technology, if we amass great amounts of it, can get in the way of our ability to connect with the humans in our family … that's the kind of thing you're talking about?
Absolutely. I think Marie Kondo did a great job, and I love the fact that people are thinking about having less stuff. But I don't agree with everything.
I think there's some unpacking she needs to do around the idea of capitalism. It has sold us the idea that we need to have stuff in order to be happy and that we gain happiness by the stuff that we have and the buying of that stuff.
Many of us don't have the privilege of being able to only own things that spark joy in us.- Karen Ridd
That's a false bill of goods, and to hold an item and say, "Does it spark joy?" continues to buy into that — that it's the stuff that gives us joy. I fully expect that I'm not going to be lying on my deathbed and holding my things in my arms, right? I'm going to be holding people's hands or memories or experiences in my mind. So it's really those things that are important.
The students in my class do an exercise where they think about peak experiences in their lives, and they talk about things like the sunset they saw, the birth of their child, when their partner asked them to marry them, when they graduated. They don't talk about the day that I bought the red sweater.
The idea of sparking joy … when that came up, I was thinking, "My winter jacket doesn't spark joy in me, but I don't know that I have to get rid of it."
There's also quite a bit of privilege, I think, in this idea that we can declutter stuff — because some of us have things because we need them, and some people keep stuff around because they don't have the wherewithal, potentially, to go buy something else.
I do. I'm a university professor. If I give away or declutter something and I find I need it later, I can go buy one. But that's not true for everybody. Many of us don't have the privilege of being able to only own things that spark joy in us.
Netflix is telling us to stop consuming objects, but it does want us to keep consuming its programming. Should we actually consider also giving up some of our media consumption?
That's one of the things that students often do as part of their experiment. They give up or they change their media consumption so that they're making conscious choices rather than being controlled by the media. They change their patterns in the world.
We also invite them not just to think about … when you give [something] up, what do you fill that space with? They often start new patterns and habits, and I think as young people, most of them are making choices about how … they want to live their lives as adults in this world — and it's exciting to see that.
More from CBC Manitoba:
With files from Jeremiah Yarmie