Once we were pressured to acquire things and do more with our lives. Now, we’re being told to declutter our homes and diaries. What happened to just being ourselves?

What brings you joy? It is a question that is hard to avoid these days, as joy seems to be the new buzzword. It is on the cover of two new books, The Joy of No (#Jono) by Debbie Chapman, published at the end of last year, and The Joy of Missing Out, by the philosopher and psychologist Svend Brinkmann, published earlier this month. It is also on Netflix, in the show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, in which the decluttering guru and author tells us to discard any possessions that do not “spark joy”. Truly, a surfeit of joy!

But joy is not the only idea linking these three approaches: Chapman, Brinkmann and Kondo all tap into the same zeitgeisty wish to clean up our cluttered lives. For Kondo, it is about household clutter; for Chapman and Brinkmann, it is life clutter.

As Brinkmann writes in The Joy of Missing Out – his reversal of the Twitter phenomenon #Fomo, the fear of missing out – there is intense and growing pressure to go out more, acquire more, and just be more. This pressure comes from without and from within, from advertising and social media as well as from our own minds. “We are constantly invited to do something, think something, experience something, buy something […] when inundated by overwhelming amounts of information, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish what is important from what is not,” Brinkmann writes.

For Chapman, life clutter builds up when we fill our lives with social events we do not really want to go to, work tasks we say yes to, when they are not our responsibility, toxic relationships and unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Just as Kondo promises to bring us joy by decluttering our homes, these books promote decluttering of a different kind – social, professional, psychological, existential – that, the authors tell us, will lead us to true fulfilment and freedom.

It is no surprise to me that this is the focus of the current wave of “how can I fix my life” angst. The wish to say no instead of saying yes, to stay in instead of going out, to discard instead of to accumulate – these are all logical responses to our feelings of being overstretched, overtired and overwhelmed. Clinical psychologist Rachel Andrew says she sees this in many forms in her consulting room, with patients saying life is too stressful and too pressured, or describing themselves as detached and their lives as meaningless and unsustainable.

Her patients tell her, she says, that “they cannot continue living at the pace they’re living at”, but at the same time, they cannot stop – they cannot say no. When she hears these words, Andrew begins thinking about “the core beliefs underneath people’s inability to say no”. When patients describe struggling to refuse to take on extra responsibilities at work, she says there is often an underlying fear that others will think they are not trying hard enough, an underlying fear that they are not good enough. That compulsive “yes” also forms part of a precarious solution to their self-doubt, she says, as, unconsciously: “They use this constant striving to make themselves feel better, to get that buzz from achieving things.”

When patients struggle to say no to social arrangements, she says: “Sometimes that can come from a core belief of feeling, deep down, that they’re unlikable.” The roots of these beliefs are frequently buried in our past. “I often meet adults who had difficult experiences in childhood, where they felt on the outside of a social group or experienced a trauma, and they don’t want to say no due to a fear of being on the outside, that people will discover them as unlikable in some way. That can lead to this perpetual need to say yes or to keep others happy.”

Maurice Mcleod, a writer and local councillor, found that his inability to say “no” caused him serious problems when he went freelance about a decade ago. He took on so many projects and agreed to do so many favours that, he says, he was living with “a constant feeling of unease and panic. Every time the phone rang, I’d think: ‘Oh my God, who’s that, what haven’t I done?’ It was this constant feeling of letting people down.” He took on so much unpaid work that he had to refuse work that was paid, got into debt, and realised the only way out was to just say “no”.

He developed a series of questions in his mind to help him work out which requests to refuse, and which to accept: will it pay? How long will it take? How much attention will it require? This helped him to feel calmer and less panicked. He says, despite “the moments of awkwardness saying no – and it is still awkward – in my head, I know the benefit of not having that extra deadline looming”.

But that is not to say it was simple, he cautions. “I still find it very difficult. I still get flattered when someone says they’d like me to be involved in their project, and I still find myself saying yes to things that I really shouldn’t. I’m not pretending I’ve conquered saying ‘no’.”

It seems it is more complicated to experience “#Jono” than Harding suggests in her book, which is full of sentences such as: “Ditch the guilt.” Reader, at this my laughter was bitter and hollow.

This is the problem with the hashtagification of this notion of saying no, of doing less, of reacting against what the psychoanalyst and fellow of the Institute of Psychoanalysis Josh Cohen calls our “manically overactive, hyper-stimulated acquisitive culture”. His book Not Working: Why We Have to Stop, is a critique of our state of perpetual busyness, a hymn in praise of doing nothing. But, he says, while he has added his voice to a “chorus of disapproval” of this culture, he has, at the same time, “a certain suspicion” of what is being created in its place. He says: “I think that once a tendency or a counter-tendency starts to trend in this way, it becomes part of the culture it wants to critique or resist. It enters the circuit of anxiety.” Inevitably, then, we begin asking ourselves, are we saying no enough? Are we missing out enough? Are we not working enough? As we strive to embrace the virtues of restraint, of doing less, of leaving space, we risk destroying that which we seek. It evaporates even as we try to articulate it, like the credibility of people who tweet about how much they are “living in the moment”.

But this is nevertheless something we need to grapple with. For Brinkmann, it is not only a question of our psychological wellbeing – although it is that too. He writes that self-restraint and missing out are as vital for the global population as they are for us as individuals because “for so long our lives have been based on overconsumption, untrammelled growth and whittling away at our natural resources”. His arguments are compelling.

Imagine that you have cancelled all your unwanted plans, said no to all your groan-inducing invitations, resisted tempting purchases, turned off your TVs, phones and computers. You are missing out on absolutely everything and feeling very smug about it, too. You are, in this moment, sitting at home, on your own, doing nothing. What happens next?

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. But the solution cannot be to force ourselves to sit quietly in a room alone, because, contrary to our own omnipotent fantasies and risible delusions of self-control, we cannot choose what we feel or what we think. We have to ask, why is this such an impossible thing for us to do? Why do we persist in filling our lives, even when we do not want to? What is it that we are avoiding? Ultimately, why do we continue to do the very things that make us unhappy?

Such big questions can be addressed by psychoanalysis, says Cohen, since, “uniquely to itself, it encourages us to ask questions about how we live that we are allowed to sit with, and turn over, and not feel under pressure to resolve. It asks us to be with the question rather than leap to the answer.” He also suggests taking a long walk with no destination in mind, or meeting a friend without a time limit or agenda – in other words, trying to create an expanse in your life that is not hemmed in by time, space, or purpose. “It’s all about cultivating in oneself the impulse to aimlessness,” he says.

As for #Jono and #Jomo – well, for me, saying no and missing out are not where I find my joy. I find it when I am not looking for it: when I am making my friend’s children laugh, or when I feel a spontaneous surge of love for my husband, or when I am cooking dinner for my friends. Cohen says: “If you read the great poets of joy, like Rilke, they think of joy as something fleeting. There is something sad about it, because one feels its passing as one experiences it – it is not some kind of permanent aspiration, a solid state.” It is a word that loses all meaning when it is part of a hashtagged acronym.

In these dysfunctional times, joy is a high bar. Perhaps we could start with trying to be honest with ourselves.