Reclaiming the Meaning of Luxury

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Dictionary.com, respectively, define luxury as:

  1. noun: a condition of abundance or great pleasure and comfort
  2. noun: a material object, service, etc., conducive to sumptuous living, usually a delicacy, elegance, or refinement of living rather than a necessity

As made apparent by these definitions, the noun luxury can refer to a condition or state of being, a material object, service, or experience. When the word ‘luxury’ is used in this essay, no attempt will be made to distinguish between the different meanings. The core arguments should apply to each of the possibilities.

Casual conceptions of luxury

Most people’s notions of luxury are incomplete. When asked to think about luxury, the general population will focus on two points. First, they often associate luxury with things not yet possessed or experienced. And second, they focus solely on the quality of the material object or service.

These points may at first seem consistent with the definitions provided above, but they both miss crucial components. The first errs by associating luxury with things we do not have. This assertion is refuted by the second definition which says that a luxury is “a delicacy, elegance, or refinement of living rather than a necessity.” This emphasis on necessity is key. It lowers the benchmark for luxury from “that which we do not have but still desire” to “that which is in excess of what we need”.

The second point–luxury’s sole dependence on material quality–also errs, albeit in a much more subtle manner. The assertion that luxury is dependent on the physical excellence of the object or experience is true; the error lies in the idea of exclusive dependence. There is an unstated assumption in both of the definitions presented above that quality alone will lead to “great pleasure” and “sumptuous living”. However, this is not necessarily the case, and necessitates a second condition for luxury that is complimentary to quality. This co-condition is appreciation.

Two necessary conditions

Luxury is co-dependent on appreciation and quality above what is necessary. Most people are already familiar with the condition of quality–beautiful homes, expensive clothing, fast cars, nice wine–it simply needs to be reoriented from what we don’t possess to what exceeds our needs. The condition of appreciation, though equally important, is less familiar.

Without appreciation, quality goes unnoticed–there is no pleasure derived. This implies that the mere presence of great quality is not equivalent to luxury. Excellence needs to be recognized, understood, internalized, and savored. “Great pleasure” and “sumptuous living” are the result of a process, a digestion of quality. Appreciation, then, is the process of internalizing and savoring excellence.

Examples of appreciation

Imagine two individuals, each possessing a bottle of fine wine. The first is a young man who recently graduated from college and now works for a prestigious company. He purchased the expensive bottle of wine in order to impress his friends and develop good tastes. He knows almost nothing about wine. The second individual is a woman who works as a sommelier. She has studied wine for years, tasting thousands of different vintages from all over the globe. She purchased the expensive bottle of wine to celebrate a special occasion.

Both individuals have high-quality wine, but they will experience it in very different ways. The young man may be able to notice a difference between his bottle of wine and the boxed wine that he drank in college. He may even pick up on distinct components of the wine that he likes. However, he will not be able to understand and savor the wine in the same way that the woman will be able to. She has developed a greater appreciation for wine–it is more of a luxury.

Quality need not be equal in order for appreciation to determine which object or experience is more luxurious. Imagine two beds: an old twin bed and a plush four-poster king size bed. It has been years since the owner of the king bed has slept anywhere else. Since he doesn’t pay attention to the detail or comfort of the bed, he no longer notices the quality. The owner of the twin bed has just returned from a week-long camping and hiking trip. He has spent the last six nights sleeping on the ground. Sore and exhausted, he collapses into bed.

Although the king bed is undoubtedly of higher quality than the twin, the difference in the men’s capacity for appreciation means that the owner of the twin can have a more luxurious experience. His activities over the past week have heightened his sense of appreciation, allowing him to internalize and savor all of the positive qualities of his twin bed.

Capacity for appreciation

These examples lead us to an important realization: our capacity for appreciation can expand and contract. Appreciation is a skill that improves with practice and that atrophies if neglected. The sommelier increased her capacity for appreciation through years of study. The hiker increased his capacity for appreciation by voluntarily depriving himself of certain comforts. Both sharpened their awareness of quality and experienced a greater degree of luxury.

In simpler terms, this implies that one could train to lead a more luxurious life. Though it may seem like a strange idea, we can approach luxury in the same way that we practice piano, train for a marathon, or study for a test.

Atrophied appreciation

We have determined that luxury is co-dependent on appreciation and quality in excess of what is necessary. It seems safe to assert that the majority of the people reading this essay possess quality in excess of what is necessary. However, I think that most people would deny the assertion that they lead luxurious lives. Perhaps, then, we can admit that our capacity for appreciation has atrophied.

This doesn’t need to be an entirely negative admission. In the same way that admitting we have grown out of shape enables us to work towards fitness, admitting that our diminished capacity for appreciation holds us back from luxury will enable us to internalize and savor our lived experiences.

It is an encouraging realization that half of the process is already complete: we are surrounded by quality in excess of our needs. If we desire a luxurious life, it is unlikely that we need to go out and pursue material goods and experiences. The expansion of our capacity for appreciation rapidly increases the level of luxury in our lives.

Fighting against numbness

The dual conditions of luxury explain why people of significant wealth don’t usually think of themselves as rich. The increase in material quality that comes with significant wealth doesn’t necessarily come with an increase in appreciation. In fact, it may be more difficult for wealthy individuals to expand their capacity for appreciation because a deluge of material quality can cause numbness.

Like the owner of the king bed, those of us who are constantly surrounded by wealth are likely to gloss over the details and fail to recognize excellence. In a strange way, it could be argued that it is less likely for the extremely wealthy to be in a position of “great pleasure and comfort” that is “conducive to sumptuous living”. It takes a deliberate act of the will–a commitment to understand and savor quality–to ensure that our sense of appreciation will not grow dull. If we desire to live a life of luxury, we must take on the responsibility of fighting against numbness.

Recognizing and savoring the quality of objects and experiences in our lives is a good thing. We shouldn’t mistake the need for appreciation as a denial of objective material quality or the goodness inherent therein. Rather, we should strive to understand and relish these things through committed study and practice.

The true application of appreciation

After working through these ideas, consider one final proposition: the people in our lives present us with the greatest potential for luxury as we have defined it. Properly addressing this idea is outside the scope of this essay, but would seem to be a logical continuation of the discussion. It seems intuitive that the individuals we interact with on a daily basis are more beautiful than any object we will ever possess, and our interactions with them are more interesting and engaging than any other experience we will ever have. People, then, are the true application of our capacity for appreciation.

If this is the case, we are immersed in riches, a situation which we have determined is likely to dull our appreciation. Because of the regularity of our encounters with people and their inherent quality, we are susceptible to numbness. If we are not deliberate in our decision making; if we do not practice; if we do not engage and take interest, our capacity for appreciation will contract and our relationships will suffer.

Luxury is dependent on appreciation and quality in excess of what is necessary. It is apparent that most of us have material quality well in excess of our needs. We can also realize that the quality found in the people around us will always surpass our capacity for appreciation. This is a joyful realization, for it implies that the luxury in our lives is limited only by our skill for understanding and savoring. We can turn to appreciation as a craftsman turns to their craft, happy to refine, to hone, to cultivate, and ultimately to reap the rewards of our work.

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