On Luxury

In Essays, Philosophy, Self Improvement, Stoicism

In today’s essay I am going to discuss why a lifestyle of luxury is actually counterproductive to our happiness.

Obviously the definition of luxury is a moving target across time. Many of us in the Western world today who would not consider ourselves particularly well off are, however, living a life of luxury, historically speaking at the least.

At no time in history have so many of us had it so good, while so many have had it so bad. Right now, there are more slaves in the world (around 30 million) than there were back in 1860, and this is not using some type of soft, modern definition of slavery. However, we should note some progress on this issue. Slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world, and that by percentage of the world’s population, slavery has decreased to an all time low.

So let’s return our focus to the other end of the spectrum, the people living in luxury.

While we might be inclined to think that those lucky few (read: few hundred million) who live in luxury have the “good life”, I’d like to propose a radical point of view that actually they might be the unlucky ones. It’s a know fact that richer countries have higher depression rates, but what is not clearly understood is why.

On a quick examination, one can come up with the following:

  1. Developed countries have the promise of social mobility that actually isn’t true. If you’re middle class or lower in terms of wealth, you are as likely to become super-rich as a peasant was likely to become a lord in feudal Europe in the middle ages.
  2. The rat race. In the West we tend to work long hours at punishing jobs that often are not mentally stimulating. I don’t want to discount the experience of a Asian sweatshop, or even suggest that it’s comparable, but there is crushing issue of “keeping up with the Joneses” that is very prevalent.
  3. We have a life of luxury, and that’s what is making us depressed.

I want to focus on this third point, as I think that is the key to unlocking the mystery of why countries that should, with conventional wisdom, be happier are not.

Why Luxury Makes Us Unhappy

With the expansion of human society, the consumption of luxury goods has increased dramatically, to the point that many of the things that average person in a developed country owns nowadays, would have been considered fit only for a king a few hundred years ago.

While this may appear to be positive development, it clearly hasn’t been all good, as we’ve seen in the introduction.

Luxury brings it’s own set of problems, namely that we quickly get used the things around us, and so we stop being able to enjoy the simple things in life.

While some people may pride themselves on only wanting the best, this is actually a very sad way to live. Often you simply won’t get things that are on par with your expectations, and so you will experience frustration, anger, or even unhappiness.

Historically, there have been differing view points on luxury.

At one extreme, we have one school of thought that insist that we do away with everything but the basics, and that we should not indulge in any type of luxury.

On the other hand, there are others who insist that it is the final aim in life to try and enjoy as many luxuries as possible, and this is what should be encouraged. That we find happiness by indulging in our desires, and then new desires will come up to fill the void and we can start the circle again, and this is what drives humanity forward.

The quote from Malcolm Forbes, founder of Forbes magazine, epitomises this outlook:

He who dies with the most toys wins.

I made a strong point against this view of life in my essay on success and I think what I wrote back then is still valid today.

There is also a middle way, where luxuries can be enjoyed, but you keep in mind that they are just transient, and are just things or experiences, and nothing more. So you enjoy them, but you do not chase them, and you keep in mind that they could be lost at any time.

In my opinion, this seems like a good balance between the two extremes.

Denying ourselves everything even when it is easily within reach, is tough to stomach, and even counterproductive.

Chasing baubles our whole lives, however, is even more counterproductive.

Luxury actually acts very much like a drug, because it is an unnatural desire. I label the desire for luxuries an unnatural desire because cannot be satisfied (this is self evident from looking around our society). Think about all natural desires, sex, food, water, fresh air, you can all so quickly get enough of these (yes, I’m setting up myself for a never-enough-sex counter here..!) and as soon as you go over your natural limit, they quickly become unpleasant.

So the problem here is that as soon as we jump on the bandwagon to wanting luxuries, we are setting ourselves up in a dangerous pattern, which if left unchecked will lead to the depression that is so widespread amongst the highly developed nations.

Let’s test this idea by going to the extremes. One the one hand, you might have the guy who only has the clothes on his back, and not much else. He is homeless, and in a way he is extremely lucky. He will be able to extract enjoyment and pleasure out of almost anything in life, the same way that young children are able to do so. This man’s first hot shower in months would, to him, be a wonderful experience.

There is a wonderful scene in the movie Fight Club, where the main character almost shoots Raymond, a convenience store clerk, in the face at point blank range.

His accomplice in crime then comments:

Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.

The point being that to be able to appreciate the simple things in life, we have to remember how amazing they really are.

If we appreciate luxury too much, and become connoisseurs of the fine things in life, we run the risk of not being able to enjoy anything else.

So let’s now go to the other extreme, a multi millionaire (or billionaire) that can literally have anything he or she wants. This person will enjoy the finest cuisines, she will be driven around in the best cars, and have private jets ready to take her to exotic destinations. However, it’s extremely important that this person maintains this lifestyle, because she is so used to it that downgrading could be an extremely disappointing experience. Then, as we have seen before, Hedonic Adaptation will kick in and make sure that we are not happy with what we have. It’s much easier to be mindful when we don’t have luxury, but when we are surrounded by luxury our desire of it actually increases, just like the more an alcoholic drinks, the more alcohol he feels he needs.

And let’s remember that luxuries are actually quite difficult to obtain. Often they require large amount of disposable income, which means working at a job that pays well, which is probably quite a bit of work, and also a lot of planning to compare which luxury to buy, who to buy it from, how to keep is safe, and so on.

That’s the reason I prefer books to gadgets. I’m never scared to leave a book unattended at a coffee shop or in a public place without keeping a watchful eye on it. I wouldn’t do the same thing with my smartphone.

My Experience

Being the usual hypocrite, I live a life of luxury. I’m currently sitting on a designer chair, typing this essay on the latest top-of-the-line 27inch iMac computer, which is resting on a beautiful large wooden table, next to a window overlooking some trees in the best neighbourhood in town.

Do I like this? Yes, I do.

Could I like without it? Absolutely

I previously wrote about how I moved from a crummy bedroom in a shared apartment with no windows (yes, really), no hot water, and a whole host of insects to this current luxury apartment. 

The point I made in that essay is that we should only truly care about the things that are meaningful, which compromises of our thoughts and actions.

An interesting thing I noticed during my time living in an apartment without hot water, is that a hot shower suddenly become one of the best luxuries I could imagine. I would visit my brother’s (luxury) apartment once a week or so to indulge in a hot shower, and it would be the highlight of my week. Imagine that, something that I had taken for granted for over twenty years, suddenly become a source of joy. This is a clear example of how getting used to luxuries dampens our appreciation for the wonderful experiences that are all around us.

Having or experience luxury should be a preferred indifferent. I would prefer to live in a nice apartment, but it’s not going to be a major (or even minor, ideally) source of happiness.

I’ll be the first to admit that this sounds somewhat dubious, and that I’ve not yet reached this stage, but I am getting closer everyday, by spending time reflecting on how life would be without these luxuries, and making sure that the things I own do not take over my life, and make me unable to enjoy the simple things.

I try and counter balance the existing luxury in my life by making sure that I can enjoy simple activities like exercise, cooking, writing, drawing, and playing music. These are not expensive hobbies, and I know that I will be able to do them in some form my entire life, without ever requiring anything that one would label luxury.

In fact, now is a good time to look at what we actually require as human beings to do what we do.

A Thought Experiment: Going Back to Basics

What are the basic requirements to live as a human being, and have these changed over the course of the last few thousand years? I suggest you take a quick read on the topic of the Maslow Pyramid.

These are interesting questions, and let’s see what we can do to try and reach answers by running a thought experiment.

I’ll use myself as an example. I am Creative Director at a digital design agency. What is required for me to live?

Let’s focus on the bare essentials first

  • Oxygen to breathe
  • Food to eat
  • Water to drink
  • Some type of protection from the elements.

These are the absolute bare minimums we need to stay alive. We can then run with these four categories and take them as far as we want.

For instance, do we need three course meals at fancy restaurants to survive, or can we eat a simple diet of fruits, nuts, and vegetables and be fine? The answer, of course, is yes, but the real question is, do we want to?

I am reminded of a chapter from the Enchiridion of Epictetus

Every man’s body is a measure for his property, as the foot is the measure for his shoe. If you stick to this limit, you will keep the right measure; if you go beyond it, you are bound to be carried away down a precipice in the end; just as with the shoe, if you once go beyond the foot, your shoe puts on gilding, and soon purple and embroidery. For when once you go beyond the measure there is no limit.

So it’s probably a good idea to apply the same thinking to other areas of life. Let’s continue with food. What is food there for? To nourish our bodies, and give us energy to continue to stay alive. That’s the core function. Many would go on to argue along the lines of gastronomical pleasures, the art of living, and that enjoying food is one of the joys of life, and so on. Yes, eating food is enjoyable, but presumably so is injecting heroin into your groin, but that doesn’t qualify it as something that we should do.

If we review our bare essentials list again with this in mind:

  • Oxygen – That’s straight forward enough.
  • Food to eat – A simple diet comprised of anything that is accessible easily, such as vegetables, nuts, fruits, perhaps some meat, and cheese. This is interesting, because nowadays we are able to have a much more diverse diet with less hassle than ever before, as it’s just a matter of going to the local supermarket, so should we have a very varied diet because it’s easily accessible?
  • Water to drink – We only need water that is clean enough for us not to get sick, and we don’t need to consume any other beverages.
  • Some type of protection from the elements – Based on the description, something as simple as a cave or shack would probably do, but of course this may well change as the requirements of our lifestyle change. Also, we probably need something to cover our bodies when we venture out, so some clothing that is appropriate to the climate we find ourselves in.

So that is really the basics we need to be able to function. Taking this list at heart, virtually everyone in the West is living in abundant luxury, and also many people in the developing countries too.

However, let’s remember that we’re focusing on me, and I work at a design firm, so what does that entail?

  • I need to be able to communicate with the rest of the company.
  • I need to visit clients
  • I need to research
  • I need to work

So that starts to increase my requirements dramatically. Now I need to be able to dress the part when required, so I’ll need:

  • Clean, fresh clothes of a certain quality, every morning.
  • A phone to communicate with other people remotely.
  • A computer to do my work on.
  • An internet connection
  • Some way to get around, or money to pay other people to take me to where I need to go.
  • A bank account to have my salary paid into.
  • …and plenty more.

So are these still luxuries, or are they basics? Is my $3,000 computer a luxury, and should I treat it as such, or is it the equivalent to a stone flint tool for a caveman? Just a tool to do the work I need? That’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure I’ve got the answer quite yet.

Regardless, I think we can quickly see how much more anyone has that the actual basics they need to continue operating as they are.

Personally, I am considering trying an experiment next year to see if I can live on half of the money that I am currently spending each month, and see what actually changes in my life. Sure, a different apartment, less meals out, but would anything that really matters change? I doubt it.

How to Fight Luxury

So you’ve seen that my definition of luxury is quite broad, and doesn’t include only traditional luxury items like designer hand bags, and top of the range technology gadgets, but also everyday things like eating varied meals, having a house that does more than protecting you from the elements, and having clothes for everyday of the week.

We’ve also seen how luxury is one of the contributing factors that makes the richer part of the globe the most depressed, and so now it’s worth investigating a strategy to fight back against luxury, and lead happy, meaningful lives, without being owned by the things we own.

As I see it, there are two basic types of luxuries we might encounter.

  1. New Luxuries that we haven’t yet experienced/purchased.
  2. Old Luxuries that we already have.

I think these two types of luxuries require different approaches.

New luxuries can sneak up without us even noticing, and before we know it, we have new standards of living that stop us enjoying life. I’ve noticed this with money. I’m almost twenty five, and my income has grown steadily in the last few years without putting too much thought into it, and so a few years down the line I find myself with far more disposable income, and start doing things like regularly going out at night in the middle of the week, which is something I would not, and in fact could not, have done only a few years back, because it would have been out of reach of my finances. This is an example of how one long term change starts to affect our behaviour.

The best way to combat new luxuries, is to keep a watchful eye on your lifestyle, and question new desires as they enter your life. Do you really need the BMW car, or can you still ride a bicycle to work? My feeling is that it gets more difficult to hold off from luxuries as we get older, because the people around us naturally start to surround themselves with luxury, and we end up playing a variation of “Keeping Up With The Joneses”. However, because we are armed with the knowledge about what luxuries actually do to us, we might realise that this is a case of the grass appearing greener on the other side.

The luxuries that are already in our lives, such as nice apartment, trend clothes, a fancy car, a trophy wife, or whatever else it might be, are already causing us distress, and so action should be taken immediately.

There are two courses of action.

The first, is to simply get rid of them. Downgrade your lifestyle, and you’ll see instant benefits. If you have the same income, you’ll notice that money starts to pile up in the bank, giving you financial freedom. You’ll notice that life will also be much simpler, and that you’ll have less useless responsibilities.

I read about a great concept over atThe Minimaliststhat is called a “Packing Party”. It’s really easy to do, but quite radical. Invite a few friends over, and pack your entire house as if you were moving out the next day. Then, during the course of the next week, take out only the things you need, as and when you need them. At the end of the week, anything that is left in a box you can either sell, give away, or throw away.

The other option, is to contemplate about the luxuries in your life, and make sure that you can comfortably live without them. This may seem like a cheat, and it can easily turn into that, so I recommend that you actually do a practical test to make sure that you are not attached to the things you own. Don’t wear your best clothes for a month, eat only a simple diet, rent a shitty apartment for a month, etc.

Regardless of how much you contemplate, you should be actively looking for opportunities to remove luxury, as that is the only proven way to fight back against luxury.

A Handful of General Tactics

One fantastic tactic, is to start to actually take pleasure in the simple things of life. Think about the amazing things that are all around us each and everyday, and develop a sense of wonder that they even exist. Think about how difficult it may have been do to what you are currently doing even a few decades ago, let alone centuries ago. For instance, the very fact that I am writing this on a computer that allows me to instantly edit, rearrange, delete, and then even publish this text, is actually an incredible thing. It’s thousands of technological breakthroughs over the past century or so, all packaged up into a sleek, beautiful machine that sits of my table in my studio.

Another great solution to extract more enjoyment out of life, is to use delaying tactics, even for simple things. The example I used about myself and my weekly hot showers (by the way, I did take daily cold showers, just to be clear!) is a good one. Also, I’m currently not having coffee for 100 days, I bet the coffee I have on day 101 will be the best coffee I have ever had . I wrote a rather huge essay on Delayed Gratification that is a great start (and end) point to learn about how to increase our enjoyment by delaying the things we normally like to do.

My final recommendation is to think about the negative aspects of actually acquiring luxury, and if there is money involved then do the following: simple calculate your wage per hour and then you an instantly calculate how much of your life you are throwing away for a given luxury. Also contemplate the ongoing costs of maintain this luxury, and you’ll often realise that it is pure madness to go for it.

Conclusion

So I hope that this essay has been useful, and has given you a starting point to look at your own life and see what can be improved.

I’d like to point to a couple of interesting resources I found while writing this article. There is a great book called The Guide to Good Life: The Art of Ancient Stoic Joy, which has a great section of luxury, and there is also a great article on the Mr. Money Mustache about luxury.

I do feel quite hypocritical writing about giving up luxury when I live a life of luxury myself, but I am hoping to be able to simply things dramatically in the next twelve months. I am already quite happy, but I think I’ll be able to take it a step further by cutting down on many things.

To conclude, I’d like to leave you with this quote by Lao Tzu.

He who knows contentment is rich.