Why did 3 million people buy a book that tells them to respect their socks?

About a month ago, my girlfriend and I were making our weekly rounds at our local bookstore when she grabbed a copy of Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” The book was located in a featured section themed around personal well-being and general happiness. The premise of the book, which purports to have sold over 3 million copies, is that cleaning and organizing your living space can be a life-changing, magical event.

A month later and not even halfway finished, the book now lies discarded on the floor beside the bedside table; its reader unable to finish it. As my girlfriend entertained me with her devastating critiques of the book, I began to wonder how a book full of such insane thoughts and unpractical, unsubstantiated claims could have sold 3 million copies in our day and age. This is an actual quote from the book:

“The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.” – from the section: Storing Socks – Treat your socks and stockings with respect.

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Socks that have been treated with respect. Not pictured: the smiling owner

Three. Million. Copies. Three million people have read that it’s important to treat their socks with respect, thank discarded items of clothing for giving them joy when they purchased them, or throwing away any books that do not cause their owners to “spark joy”. This book is The Secret for hoarders.

Kondo’s book  does provide an interesting case and while it hasn’t sparked any joy for me, it has sparked my curiosity. The book is actually a great example that can help illustrate the peculiar literary consumption patterns of many Westerners. If a book with such bizarre advice can become wildly popular, what does that say about the people buying the book and their motivation for doing so? Surely not everyone got duped by bloggers who were paid to cover the book or write fake reviews on Amazon, so if it wasn’t the more insidious reason, then what was it?

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The death of religion in the west has brought about the disruption of many centuries-old traditions, but strangely, our attachment to mysticism has remained. What was once widespread devotion to deities has been supplanted by spirituality and a fascination with Eastern philosophy. The title of Kondo’s book draws on just that; the use of the words “magic” and “Japanese” in the title evokes a response in line with the west’s fascination with Eastern mysticism.

We have a habit of treating many Eastern cultures with a level of respect so high that it often blinds us to the confines of our accepted reality. We associate the Japanese with their traditional cultural values like respect and honour, so when Kondo recommends that we treat our socks with respect, we openly accept this advice due to our preconceived notion of Japanese values despite the lack of factual evidence to support the claim.

The use of the word “art” in the title also reinforces the traditionalist facade of the book, despite the fact that Kondo conjured this “Japanese art” out of thin air. Because of our respectful ignorance of foreign culture, this “Japanese art” was sold to Westerners the same way that yoga, meditation, and fortune cookies have been in the past. None of the previous items in the list are rooted in tradition, but have been packaged as such in order to sell mysticism to respectfully ignorant westerners.

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The other reason why this book has sold three million copies is the “magic” in the title. That magic, however, is not related to foreign mysticism, but transformational magic related to mental health and wellness. One of the prevailing themes in Western culture is a focus on optimizing our happiness. Billions of dollars are spent on improving happiness every year as part of the “happiness economy“, and it seems that primarily among the middle to upper class, nothing is more important than being happy.

In the current developed world, happiness is traded as a currency, with countless products and technologies centred around the notion that we should constantly be striving to be as happy as possible. Our culture’s obsession with happiness is ultimately what has driven the sale of this book to the magnitude it has achieved.

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A great example of the lunacy that has been marketed thanks to the “happiness economy”. Don’t even get me started on a pseudoscience that is the alkaline diet.

When analyzing what motivates a consumer purchase, consumer psychologists and marketers examine consumers and their purchases in the context of their “jobs to be done”. Pioneered by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, the jobs to be done mode of analysis treats a product like an employee that gets “hired” to do a “job” by the consumer.

When you buy a drill, you’re not actually buying a drill, you’re buying a hole. In a commonly described example, Christensen details how consumers “hired” a milkshake from a fast food restaurant to fulfill the “job” of feeding themselves in the morning while also lasting long enough to offset the boredom of their commute to work. Christensen was seeking to uncover why consumers purchased milkshakes instead of other menu items like a bagel or a donut. Their research revealed that milkshakes lasted longer than a bagel or a donut and kept consumers full longer, hence why milkshakes were “hired” by consumers. In response to this discovery, the restaurant chain designed a special morning milkshake to last even longer by including small bits of fruit and making the shake thicker. Sales improved thanks to the change.

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If we apply this concept to sales of Kondo’s book, we can see that consumers did not purchase Kondo’s book because they were interested in cleaning. They purchased it for an entirely different reason: they were unhappy – or least, they perceived themselves to be that way. Happiness is sold to us through marketing techniques that tell us we’re miserable. In the case of Kondo’s book, the title and premise of the book are designed to convince readers that they won’t be truly happy unless their homes are perfectly organized.

While there is no concrete evidence that a well-organized living space translates to a happier life, the act of organizing or cleaning your home can contribute to happiness. However, it’s not the fact that you’re cleaning; it’s the fact that you’re accomplishing a goal. So while readers of Kondo’s book may feel better after following her advice, the same result would have happened if they set out to organize their home according to any method. As long as they did something, the effect would remain the same.

Cleanliness ultimately comes down to a state of personal preference. You can be happy in a messy home provided you’re checking off the boxes in another area of your life. Creative people are often said to have messier homes and offices, and the reason for this could be that they are satisfying their innate desire for accomplishment through a variety of projects.

At the end of the day, drivers of happiness are repeatedly tied to the process of accomplishment. Essentially, as long as you’re keeping your mind or body occupied, you’ll enjoy a higher relative level of happiness than if you were just sitting around watching TV or wasting time on Facebook. Why Kondo’s book sold 3 million copies wasn’t because 3 million people started living better lives in more organized homes with socks that they constantly thanked. It was because 3 million people bought a book because they wanted to be happier. And if any of them followed Kondo’s advice on a Sunday morning to help reorganize their bookshelf, for that time spent tidying, they were happy.

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A clean home will not make you happy, but cleaning your home will.

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