Tuesday, January 3, 2012
THE NEED FOR LUXURY
As so often happens, a comment by Gail set me to thinking about the nature of luxury, and whether it is a basic human need. I suppose it all depends on how you define “luxury”, but it seems to me that humans do instinctively need luxury in some form in order to lead a physically and mentally healthy life.
If luxury is defined as something inessential but enjoyable, then almost anything in our contemporary environment could be considered a luxury. We could certainly survive without our electronic gadgets, although I sometimes question the extent to which they are enjoyable enough to be called “luxuries”. We could survive without 95% of our clothing, increasing to 100% in summer or a tropical environment. We could survive without hot showers, shampoo, or even running water. Plenty of people do. We could survive without music, literature, philosophy, beautiful design, and perfume, although this would reduce us to the most abject level of Puritanism. Most of the things that fill our lives would be considered luxuries in some context.
In the animal kingdom, you see many examples of what could be considered desire for luxury. Birds build “luxurious” nests to make their lives more comfortable, lining them with soft materials and sometimes decorating them with shiny things. Dogs roll in materials with scents that they find pleasant. Chimps like to get a nice, relaxing grooming treatment from one of their buddies.
I can imagine that humans have been finding ways to devise luxuries for as long as the species has existed, making unnecessary but pleasant vocalizations and beating out pleasant rhythms on found objects, getting a de-lousing or massage from a friend, rubbing themselves with aromatic leaves, and choosing the firewood that smells best when burned. Come to think of it, fire is itself a luxury. We don’t have to be warm, clean, and well-fed to survive, but it makes us a lot healthier in every respect and helps ensure the survival of the species. Evolution has built into our natures a need for comfort and pleasure. Why fight it?
Of course, once the basic luxuries are in place and we no longer have to worry about where our next meal is coming from or whether we’re going to freeze in the winter, the search for luxury still goes on, eventually culminating in an economy where “luxury” is decoupled from comfort or pleasure and associated with high cost or exclusivity. I think it’s worthwhile to step back sometimes and think about what truly gives us pleasure and what simply causes our hunter-gatherer brains to experience a dopamine rush when the pursued object (or a facsimile of it) is obtained or displayed, even if it’s useless to us or requires more outlay of resources and/or maintenance than it gives back in pleasure.
The start of a new year is a good time to think about where to draw the line between real luxuries (maybe some good perfume!) and artificially created desires for “luxury” items (a ride in this ridiculous looking vehicle?).
["luxury" item photos from retailers' advertisements; idealized "caveman" drawing by Margaret McIntyre, around 1920]