The Luxury of Happiness

 

A dock at sunset on White Sands Island in the Maldives.

Understanding that culture at its highest must never feel transactional, whatever its cost. We ascend to these heavens for total respite from the world below, for extraordinary service and luxuriant atmosphere as much as for the quality of the food prepared. – Sam Sifton 

The concept of Luxury, and the happiness it brings can be many things… exhilarating, rarified, ephemeral, subjective, intimate, vague, individual, often all-consuming and almost always relative.

The only animal to hope for such a thing as a better past and a more enriched future beyond Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is the human-being. Sitting at the forefront of our brain, our frontal lobe allows us to envisage an almost infinite range of future possibilities in distinctly different ways to other creatures, lending us our distinctly ‘human’ concept of luxury.

This extraordinary feature of the human brain can however be something of a mixed blessing, as the finer calibrations of our internal biochemistry often have a distinctly mercurial tendency and dramatically shift in all sorts of directions of their own accord, taking your mind along for the ride. This can occasionally take you to the deepest levels of fulfilment, or as is more often the case, to a place where your definition of ‘happiness’ evolves to reach new heights, and increase what it takes for you to feel satisfied in the future, and this is the feeling where you get exactly what you wished for only to be disappointed.

In something of an interminable struggle between enlightenment and ignorance, we may eventually come to the realization that ultimately, happiness is sensitive to relative rather than absolute values. Imagine for a moment something you want which is for whatever reason not within your power to obtain and consider how it would feel to possess it, and now think back to a past experience where you have gotten what you wished for; does expectation match the reality?

What’s occurred is the ubiquitous ‘Social Treadmill’ effect. You desire, eventually you acquire, and transitorily you’re euphoric. Only now, your brain has a new baseline for ‘normal’, and as a consequence you’re suddenly at a heightened (relativistic) state of craving.

“Success, like happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue” – Viktor Frankl

There’s even a formula for it! Swiss Mathematician & physicist Daniel Bernoulli’s calculation for happiness multiplies the chance of getting what you crave by the pleasure of it, and shows how that which elated you initially loses that effect over time. I’ll Paraphrase Buddha’s words to make the point – “There is no end to desire, and the root of suffering is desire”.

Now that’s been said, what can you do about it?

The basic western understanding of ‘happiness’ is that we should devote our efforts not to the material, but to find inner peace, which is often seen as focusing on doing things like forcing positive thoughts, and blocking negative ones. However, paradoxically inner peace works counter-intuitively to the common understanding. According to Buddha, inner peace is the freedom from desire, a state where you are completely aware of every sensation for no more or less than what they are without the want to change anything. The hardest element in this path can be coming to terms with the simple fact that until you free yourself from your cravings it will never end, and you’re going to stay on that treadmill.

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment” – Buddha

To clarify, you need to allow yourself to feel experiences as they are, not what you want them to be. Should you find yourself in the midst of an experience (pleasurable or painful) and desire the sensations change through intensification, extension, consummation, or any other modification, then you are being deprived of true immersion. Understanding that the true apotheosis of everything is to know that all of it is ephemeral, and you should not seek to change that which is out of your power to do so, just live and feel, being completely aware and without bias to any sensation.

The unique impact social media has on our hyper connected selves every minute of every day only serves to distract us from the experiences we should be living, not neglecting while you swipe left.

“Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right there in the imperfection is perfect reality” – Shunryu Suzuki

So, consider not of the acquisition of the most expensive, but rather the necessary things; not reading the most, but openly absorbing the words; and remembering that desire is just an option your mind affords, not an imperative you have to obey. After all, a pained life lived with meaning can be infinitely more satisfying than a meaningless life lived in comfort.

As I thought about how to conclude this piece, and a few words from a friend say it best – “luxury is measured by rarity and sophistication; creating unforgettable, educational life moments and journeys. Access to destinations, services, individuals and experiences, which go beyond the mere concept of self-indulgence.”

Lastly, if what you’ve read strikes a chord I would recommend reading ‘Man’s search for meaning’ by Viktor Frankl, and should you have a hard time with cravings, Frankl gives some advice I use daily – “our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude”.

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