Does “Spark Joy” Mean The Same Thing In English And Japanese?

Netflix What does Marie Kondo really mean when she uses the words spark joy?

by Ashley Austrew

After the debut of Marie Kondo’s smash hit Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, in January 2019, much fuss has been made about her directive of removing items in our homes that do not, as she calls it, “spark joy.”

How can household objects “spark joy”?

The idea of household objects sparking joy was first mentioned in Marie Kondo’s books, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Japan, 2011; US, 2014) and Spark Joy (Japan, 2012; US, 2016), as a key component of her trademarked KonMari Method. To practice the method, Kondo instructs people to go through the items they own one-by-one, keeping those that spark joy (i.e., gives them genuine happiness) and discarding those that do not.

To some, this sounds like an absurd idea. After all, there are any number of items required to manage a household we don’t typically associate with joy. If your toilet brush doesn’t make you happy, are you supposed to just throw it out?

In the months following the release of Kondo’s show, many tweeted and memed jokes and criticisms about the idea that everything people own must bring them joy. And this led some to believe that there seems to be a great, big mess surrounding what Marie Kondo actually means by joy.

What is joy?

Recorded in English by the 1200s, joy comes the French joie, ultimately from the Latin gaudium, meaning “gladness” or, well, “joy.” Joy is defined in English as “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying.” For instance: Our family was finally all together for the holidays. It brought me so much joy.Joy can refer to “a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated.” For example: He’s such a joy to be around.

What does Marie Kondo mean by joy?

In Marie Kondo’s books, spark joy is a loose translation of the Japanese word ときめく (tokimeku), literally “to flutter,” “to throb,” “to palpitate,” or “to beat fast,” as your heart would when it feels excited. 

In January 2019, Apartment Therapy reported that Cathy Hirano, who translated The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up from its original Japanese to English, considered several possibilities when translating tokimeku, including “bring pleasure,” “speak to your heart,” “brighten your world,” “give you a thrill,” and “make you happy.”

Hirano said:

The one that really spoke to me after reading her book was “spark joy” because it’s got that element of sudden flutter in your heart, or that feeling of inspiration if you’re anticipating something. … It was very powerful for me, but I knew I did not want to use that all the time, because in English if you use a powerful phrase too often it then becomes mind-numbing.

Is joy the same thing as happiness?

Happy means “delighted, pleased, or glad, as over a particular thing.” Happiness, then, is “the quality or state of being happy.” The word happy is recorded in English in the 1300s. It joins hap, that is, “one’s luck or lot,” and the suffix -y, which means “characterized by or inclined to.” (Think about what this says about happiness!)Joy and happiness can technically be used interchangeably, but happiness is often used in the context of celebrating or acknowledging good fortune or positive circumstances, as in, “I’m so happy I was able to get tickets for this show,” or, “We’re so happy to be here.” Joy often describes the more blissful, elated feeling we get from someone or something very special, as in, “You bring so much joy to my life,” or, “He is my pride and joy.” Joy tends to me more intense than happiness.

How does something spark joy?

In the context of the KonMari method, joy goes beyond just happiness. To tell if an object sparks joy, Kondo told the Los Angeles Times in 2016, consider if the item has a place in the vision of the life you aspire to: Hold the item “firmly in both hands as if communing with it,” she explained. “Pay close attention to how your body responds … When something sparks joy, you should feel a little thrill.” A literal tokimeki (ときめき), in Japanese.

The thrill, though, can come from many things. It can come from the fact that you really love and enjoy an object, like a favorite sweater. It can come from “simple design that puts you at ease, a high degree of functionality that makes life simpler,” as she told the Los Angeles Times. Joy can also come from how an object contributes to your life. Kondo did a short segment for Netflix with Hasan Minhaj, comedian and host of Patriot Act, in which he told her that a baby monitor he rigged up to watch his child napping from his office was necessary but didn’t “spark joy.”

She sagely countered: “But this does spark joy for you knowing that you can work peacefully, and that your child is safe, right?”

The KonMari Method is, in many ways, a gratitude practice that encourages people to be mindful about the role different items play in their lives, and to be intentional in how they care for and use those items. In this way, practical items can be a source of joy, not because they make people feel giddy like a toddler holding a candy bar, but because they inspire an overall feeling of peace and happiness.

In American consumer culture, people are not often encouraged to contemplate what their toilet plunger, say, adds to their lives. As Kondo notes in a January 2019 interview with HuffPost, Americans tend to have a “more is better” mindset. We accumulate things for the sake of accumulating them, and our sense of joy comes from having the newest, coolest, and most stuff, rather than how useful that stuff is or how it fits into the bigger picture of how we’d like to feel in our day-to-day lives.

With her KonMari method, Marie Kondo is asking people to be mindful about their belongings and what those belongings add to their lives. But, for many Americans, the idea that one could feel joy for the every day luxuries we take for granted is proving to spark some … pain.

Ashley Austrew is a freelance writer from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has been published at Cosmopolitan, Scary Mommy, Scholastic, and other outlets.For more by Ashley, read: “Why Can’t Women Swear?” | “Is It Time For All Couples To Use The Term “Partner”? | “Is “Crude” The Right Word To Use To Describe Someone’s Language?” | “What Does It Mean To Be Electable?” | “Has The Word ‘Expert’ Lost Its Meaning In 2019?”

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