188.8.131.52 Enough is enough
Consciously choose quality over quantity and break the link in your mind between more and better
Luxury is a signal, but to non-deceived vision it signals stupidity, not success
Buying stuff because we can, rather than because we really want it lies behind the market for luxuries. The perceived value of a luxury is based not on function, or beauty, but on having it while others do not. It is possible that the subjective value of something to someone, independent of that someone’s insecurity-driven perceptions of others’ perceptions of them, could coincide with that something being seen as a luxury, but it’s of negligible concern relative to the luxuries where this isn’t the case.
Luxury goods are a fascinating phenomenon. To one way of looking, they advertise our lack of value as a human (those confident of character need no such crutches), while to another they do the opposite (those that see luxuries as symbols of worth, or even substitutes for a soul).
People who use their wealth wisely do so to effortlessly express character, not struggle to create it out of cash. Yet this is rare among the living. When people die, only the truly bereft of human value would be praised for their possessions or the size of their last bonus, yet while still alive, this is a common default for judging not only others, but ourselves. Our judgment of human value is so wedded to what we have, rather than who we are, that we accumulate the former instead of cultivating the latter, and, as we’ll see later, even those that denounce this means of judgment are playing a distorted version of the same game.
Luxury goods are merely the showiest example of a mindset that is created, cultivated, and continually reinforced by a society set up to stop people from ever knowing what they really want to do with themselves – and by extension their money.
As Alan Watts wrote:
Generally speaking, the civilized man does not know what he wants. He works for success, fame, a happy marriage, fun, to help other people, or to become a ‘real person.’ But these are not real wants because they are not actual things. They are the by-products, the flavours and atmospheres of real things – shadows which have no existence apart from some substance. Money is the perfect symbol of all such desires, being a mere symbol of real wealth, and to make it one’s goal is the most blatant example of confusing measurements with reality.[i]
‘We are in love with not things,’ says Watts, but ‘measures; not solids but surfaces.’ This has catastrophic consequences. Defenders of luxury expenditure sound a lot like drug addicts and over-eaters. Something ‘feels good’, ‘makes me happy’, is a ‘treat’ or a ‘reward’, could be given up instantly if needed, etc. Crucially, there is always a separation of self and object. And the object is always an addition, never a catalyst for levelling-up life from the inside out.
Why is it that everything we traditionally describe as a ‘treat’ leaves us poorer and in worse health? What sort of ‘treat’ leaves us with less money, and lower long-term energy? The phrase ‘I deserve it’ is indicative of deprivation. Deprivation is not a strong base for wise decision-making. Never shop for food when you’re hungry.
We see again that the common mindset is wired for waste. The idea of a ‘treat’ – something rewarding, cherishing, and that symbolises savouring the high points of our lives – is clearly a Good Thing. But to do it by wasting the very resources of that life, often with poison, is pretty clear evidence that we’re stuck playing a damn silly game.
Luxuries, if they are to make sense, should be the show-off symbols of mastery; ‘useless’ movements that prove true facility with, and bring out the fun in, the fundamentals. Instead we use to pad our already plush cells. We see this clearly enough when presented with the extreme versions in Emirs, Emperors, and entourage-laden sports stars, but we remain blind to the same drivers dictating our subtler, but equally silly, behaviours.
One of the more interesting aspects of luxury is where people don’t care for it. The School of Life argues that: ‘The desire for luxury is inversely related to the level of dignity of an average life’. [ii] It cites Denmark as ‘a country which boasts the third highest level [of] per capita income in the world and one of the most equal distributions of wealth anywhere’, and which is ‘rather inimical to luxury’.
The School of Life attributes the impulse to buy luxury goods to two factors: fear of being average in societies where it is dangerous to be so; and a desire to advertise one’s difference when ‘being the same means to be very short of dignity and respect.’ The gaudy golden garlands ‘are forms of protection against the terror of an average life, in societies where average means appalling.’
Societies bond through insecurity and fear. They isolate and attack anything out of the ordinary as a threat to the tribe. They have rules to govern transgressions. You are in, or out, and it’s not up to you. Luxury goods, as symbols of the separation between different strata of society, are an expensive entrance-fee, perfect for reflecting and enforcing these rules.
But there is a better way. As the world’s borders blur, and geography’s grip on the governance of our lives loosens, to be cast out of your local tribe isn’t such a problem. You don’t need a strictly bordered society running on rules when you have a global network of cultures defined by and expressive of evolving traditions.
We want belonging, connection. In a society, belonging comes from rules; in a culture, it comes from traditions. Rules are something you have. Traditions are something you express, and help to create, or evolve. Societies use symbolic possessions to know who is in, and who is out. Cultures identify each other through character. Societies are bound together by shared external goods; cultures, by shared internal values.
One’s society, as defined by geography, may be wedded to unhelpful worldviews, but societies are wedded to all sorts of nonsense that, assuming one doesn’t live in an authoritarian state, one doesn’t have to choose to sacrifice their wellbeing to. So screw society, choose culture.
This has important implications for investing, which we’ll come to later. In short, when an identity is attached to societal influences (consciously or otherwise) you can’t simply remove the attachment. You have to replace it. You can replace it not by forcing someone to own good investments, but by cultivating a new attachment to a culture of being a good investor.
Luxury does display differences. But in a world where we’re less dependent on geographical tribes to meet our needs for belonging and connection, there’s a more important difference on display.
Luxury’s desire to display is a derivative of extrinsic motivation. Studies on extrinsic v intrinsic motivation show that the extrinsically motivated are far more likely to buy showy crap that doesn’t work. Professor Tim Kasser, who studies the role of materialism and consumerism on financial wellbeing and environmental sustainability, has shown that people who have high extrinsic motivation are more likely to seek fame and acceptance of others. What they do for, and with, money is heavily influenced by what other people think of them. Or rather, what they perceive other people’s perceptions will be (reality has very little say in status-driven decisions).
As financial planner Jason Butler wrote, summarising Professor Kasser’s work:
Professor Kasser advises that people who have high extrinsic motivation tend to feel emotional insecurity and be less mentally resilient. For many people this is due to their emotional needs not having been met in their childhood, while for others it could be due to hormonal imbalances or having suffered a major emotional trauma. […] Whatever the cause, high extrinsic motivation usually manifests itself in the form of spending money on things that don’t maintain or improve one’s financial wellbeing – expensive cars, big houses, exotic holidays, unnecessary possessions, fashionable clothes, beauty products or jewellery – and that often have a negative impact on the environment.[iii]
Luxury, in short, is a sign of insecurity. Which doesn’t feel like such a cool thing to advertise. Especially when doing so robs one of resources that could be used for more fulfilling ends. Intrinsically motivated people, on the other hand, the article continues:
tend to be more emotionally secure and have a greater sense of connection with other people and their community. Their spending tends to be focused on living a life based on what makes them truly happy and is aligned with what is important to them, rather than seeking the approval or acceptance of others.
A desire for luxury, whatever its root cause, isn’t hard-wired. No one is cursed to waste their life atop a meaningless and unnecessarily expensive conveyor belt of doing work they hate for shit that doesn’t make anything any better, however much they were conned into believing it would. ‘It’s just who I am’ is never a valid excuse for anything, least of all not becoming who you could be.
Stepping off the conveyor belt may require no more than coming to see luxury as a signal not of ‘success’, but of sadness. It’s both more true, and more conducive to not being an idiot.
As Cynthia Cryder et al have shown: ‘Sadness increases the amount of money that decision makers give up to acquire a commodity.’ [iv] They dub this the ‘misery-is-not-miserly effect’ and show that it occurs only when self-focus is high. They draw on William James’s observation that material goods play such a strong role in people’s stories of themselves that losing material possessions results in ‘a sense of shrinkage of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness’, and note the following chain of events: ‘sad event + self-focus = devaluation of self = desire to enhance self = pay more for possessions.’
At the root of chasing more is a belief that life is lived in the future, not the present
Suggesting that luxury signals a lack of worth rather than an abundance of it is not a reliable way to make friends, nor influence people to do anything other than look at you like you’re a funless Puritan. ‘Lighten up!’ they say. ‘Live a little!’ they chirp. ‘Live in the here and now!’ they urge.
They are mistaken. For ‘living in the here and now’ is not hedonism, and luxuries are a sign, not that one is living in the moment, but that one has shot right past the moment, while chasing a dream of a life that’s a mere material mirage.
‘The more a man lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity he has for what is essential,’ wrote Jung, ‘the less satisfying is his life. He feels limited because he has limited aims, and the result is envy and jealousy.’[v] If the key to a Good Life is an examination of who one is, and the use of one’s resources to live in accordance with that knowledge, then the desperate drive for more, and the substitution of examination with excess, is the opposite of what we want, for it replaces the process of examination and refinement with a cycle of ignorance and waste. It is the blindness, not the quantum, of ‘more’ that’s the problem.
Resisting the shiny sirens of superfluity isn’t always easy. Not least because it can be hard to disentangle a luxury motive from a beautiful one. A beautiful life is adorned with beautiful things. But it is the beauty, not the luxury that we want. The fit of a jacket is more important than the label on it. And the health of the person underneath it is more so. The luxury label is a salve for a psychological shortcoming, an unhelpful wound created by a story that needn’t be true. Plastering over it doesn’t make it heal. There is a difference between art – a beautiful thing that expresses an otherwise inexpressible part of who you are – and a vehicle for showing off a price tag.
The joy we can feel from luxury derives from its symbolism. We can sub in a different symbol. If we want to waste money, transforming someone else’s life with it has reliably greater long-term effects for the giver, let alone the receiver. And if it doesn’t work for you, it’s not difficult to go back to Bond Street, secure in the knowledge that your decision-making now stands on firmer ground.
To live in the here and now is to recognise that you can be happy now or not at all. It’s a bias not towards blind consumption, but towards a continual reviewing of the story you are telling about who you are and if what you’re doing supports that story. Part of your story – and therefore part of your allocation of resources – is about your future.
We want conscious choice, but choose instead to swing from jumping to conclusions to indefinite delay, all the while substituting external and ephemeral for more intrinsically valuable qualities. Immediate action taken with the knowledge of its imperfection is better than waiting for an unachievable certainty.
We can expand our earlier call for ‘alignment coaches’ to wider ‘conscious choice coaches’: advisers that remind us what it’s all about and support us along the tightrope of ‘enough’ when we’re drawn to blindly lose balance chasing ‘more’.
If you’ve ever taught or been taught anything, you’ll know the temptation to jump in and ‘help’ when someone is struggling, your uneasiness with standing by growing with their frustration with not grasping something. A nudge towards the answer eases the tension but kills the learning. A nudge towards thinking it through until temples are strained to bursting does the opposite… but it works, and coach and coachee feel incomparably better afterwards. Such strains cannot be kept up for long, of course. Such effort should be directed towards creating skills that make everything easier next time. That, in the realm of living a Good Life, prioritise comfort with complexity, not a myopic searching for simplistic.
But just as most advisers don’t encourage examination, they also don’t encourage enough; most operate in the employ of more, as we’ll see next.
 The point of a luxury good is that its price is part of its value. Expert craftsmanship, if it exists, is an irrelevance. The luxury element is about advertising how much something cost – how much was sacrificed in its acquisition (Recall the conspicuous consumption con from Section 184.108.40.206). Something that was crafted perfectly but which no one knew the price of would not count as a luxury.
 I’ve known people to complain-brag about spending €25 on an espresso in Monaco, as if that made them sound anything other than stupid.
 We’ll return to the cultivation of character in Part 2, Section 4.2.3.
 See Trigger #26: It’s just who I am.
 Seen in this light, the frankly upsetting modern phenomenon of deliberate product sabotage, despite it wasting global resources, punishing the poor, and filling the world full of ugly shit, endures so well because it feeds off the sadness and fear of the rich.
[i] Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
[ii] The School of Life, The Book of Life http://www.thebookoflife.org/why-we-continue-to-love-expensive-things/
[iii] Jason Butler, ‘Match Your Spending With Your Values’ for The Evidence-Based Investor blog, 29th September, 2019 https://www.evidenceinvestor.com/match-your-spending-with-your-values/
[iv] Cryder, Cynthia & Lerner, Jennifer & Gross, James & Dahl, Ronald. (2008). Misery Is Not Miserly Sad and Self-Focused Individuals Spend More. Psychological science https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5277049_Misery_Is_Not_Miserly_Sad_and_Self-Focused_Individuals_Spend_More
[v] Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections