Luxury and happiness

Professor Michael Scott has the rare talent of bringing interdisciplinary research on ancient Greek and Roman societies to life, as his acclaimed shows on the BBC, History Channel and National Geographic demonstrate. The recipient of multiple awards, his most recent publication is “Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West” (Penguin). He explores with us the connection between luxury and happiness.

Associate Professor Dr. Michael C.Scott

Luxury relies on social inequalities: high quality products and services are scarce, therefore expensive and thus reserved for the affluent. Luxury is also about providing a certain level of happiness, which involves empathy and sympathy. How is it possible to reconcile these two faces of luxury: exclusivity and sharing?

The 21st century has a love-hate relationship with luxury. The definitions of the term “luxury” itself are diverse and often accommodate opposite poles. Luxury is defined by rarity. It is differentiable and differentiating.

Over the last decade, the trend of “affordable luxury” has emerged in the UK, involving, for example, chains of coffee shops offering a cup of coffee costing £3-4 – which is expensive. Consumers splash out on coffee, which is not scarce. They can afford it and treat themselves, and this brings them happiness. This luxury is therefore marketed to society at large. This somehow squares the circle.

High-end luxury can also cater to unhappiness, for example through eco-luxury or environmental luxury. This can include environmentally friendly travel, or goods using handmade materials.

Ancient Greece is the model for democracy and therefore political equality, but is also known for its refinement, luxury and therefore, implicitly, its social inequalities. How do you analyse this tension?

Ancient Greece is not one society, but the combination of more than a thousand city-states with different ideas. It is a smorgasbord of mini-cultures. Being rich was seen as potentially problematic and did not necessarily equal happiness. In an allegory, King Midas transformed everything he touched into gold and ended up starving to death. In many stories, happiness does not require money. At the end of his odyssey, Ulysses ends up rich, but all he wants is a good dinner and good friends.

Some city-states let their citizens be rich without intervention, and some of them are happy. Sparta banned luxury and declared absolute equality. Athens chose a middle ground, and did not outlaw luxury but legislated to curb and control displays of luxury. The idea was to channel spending for the benefit of the citizens and the city, encouraging, for example, the wealthy to spend on sanctuaries or items which were public and could be enjoyed by everyone (such as drama festivals).

What are the ideal conditions for the emergence of luxury as the expression of a certain cultural progress?

Cultural progress is a variable notion, dependent on our values. The Athenian model in the ancient Greek world was the most sophisticated and successful. Would it work today? Legislation to set up boundaries, social engineering to encourage giving something back to society (prestige) and spreading affordable luxury seem achievable. Many more societies have some elements of this already – but none I would argue that have all of them as well attuned as Athens did.

Do you see a link between social progress, political freedom, happiness and luxury?

Every society has to negotiate these relationships. This is complex, as these concepts change over time. Today, the experience of luxury is marketed as a way to sign off from everyday life. In a connected world, it is an increasingly difficult task. Luxury is the opposite of social reality.

© Michael Scott, prykhodov, puhha/123RF

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