What is luxury? To some, luxury is synonymous with caviar, champagne and chandeliers. To others, luxury calls to mind diamonds and pearls. To still others, it’s wrapped in fancy cars and fur stoles.
Regardless of how we conceive of luxury, most of us believe the “good life” is something reserved for other people. Only the wealthy can bear the expense of a $10,000 a night villa and afford Christian Louboutin shoes and Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label. How could we, ordinary common people with five figure salaries and overdue credit card bills, ever taste luxury’s celebratory bubbles?
In his eye-opening A More Exciting Life, paradigm-shifting British philosopher Alain de Botton argues we don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to pamper ourselves. Anyone can elevate the everyday regardless of the status of their bank account. “We too often forget,” de Botton writes, “especially on our sadder and more restricted days…that the core pleasures of luxury also exist in small forms that can be accessed at a far more manageable cost.”
Luxury doesn’t have to be a first-class plane ticket or a taffeta bungalow— it can be a bottle of perfume, a sleek black and white candle, an impossibly soft pair of cashmere socks, a silk robe. Luxury can be as affordable as an ivy plant for the windowsill, as simple as adding freshly shaved chocolate to our hot cocoa.
Are many luxurious things beyond our bank account?
Of course, obviously most of us can’t justify daily massages and summers along the Amalfi coast but that doesn’t mean we can’t find similar qualities of pleasure and beauty in our lives as they’re constituted now.
Say we want Yves Saint Laurent’s latest shoulder bag because it captivates us with its smooth black calfskin and streamlined design. We might not be able to afford its hefty $2,000 price tag, but we can find just as much elegance and sophistication in the brand’s lipstick for $38.99.
Or maybe we long for the immaculately designed multi-million dollar homes in Vogue and Elle. Rather than max out our credit cards, we can find small ways to elevate our home. Love the clean, simple lines of mid-century modern design? We might not be able to afford a vintage velvet coach or an entirely new dining table but we can certainly treat ourselves to a Picasso print or a chic 1960s vase from our local thrift store.
After an exhausting few months of work, we might dream of getting away for awhile— to a remote cabin in the woods, perhaps, or a serene Greek spa. We might not be able to bake in a sauna in Santorini but we can recreate some semblance of a spa in our own homes: we can light candles, pour ourselves our finest glass of wine, play a soothing Beethoven sonata and submerge ourselves in a blissful bath of sweet-scented bubbles. If we want to restore our bodies and replenish our souls— de Botton suggests— we don’t have to flock to a Greek spa halfway across the world; we can transform our bathroom into an oasis of calm as long as we pay attention to detail.
But all this begs the question: isn’t a love of luxury materialistic? showy and superficial? Aren’t there more important things we should concern ourselves with, the declining middle class, for example, or the impending threat of global warming or the millions of starving children across the world?
Though our culture condemns the pursuit of pleasure as hopelessly shallow (if not downright immoral), we should prioritize luxury for the sole reason that it can comfort and console. Life rarely goes as it’s supposed to: our marriage ends, we never achieve our dream of becoming a Broadway star. Our day-to-day is defined by great catastrophes— death, divorce— and seemingly small but equally dispiriting difficulties— a self-centered mother, a moody sister, a demanding boss. During the span of a single day, we have to endure countless disappointments and humiliations: we might get beat out for a promotion, leave the office and find we got a $200 parking ticket, lose our favorite coat, and return home only to be the object of our husband’s derision and ridicule.
Because the world cares nothing for us, we must be kind and care for ourselves. A glass of champagne or Gucci loafers won’t completely cure our ills but they can certainly cheer us when life is cruel.
5 thoughts on “Alain De Botton on Luxury as a Restorative Form of Self-Care”
These words grabbed my attention as I read your post:
“Life rarely goes as it’s supposed to… Our day-to-day is defined by great catastrophes— death, divorce— and seemingly small but equally dispiriting difficulties— a self-centered mother, a moody sister, a demanding boss… During the span of a single day, we have to endure countless disappointments and humiliations……Because the world cares nothing for us, we must be kind and care for ourselves.”
I so agree that in our sadder days, we chide ourselves that we should show more gratitude for what we do have, and that we are reprimanding ourselves for being too shallow for wishing for something more, something better.
Because the declining middle class, poverty and inequity are real problems. And yet, you are right that a small dose of luxury may lift our spirts when life feels too challenging. We must do what we can to get and support ourselves on such days. Pampering is comforting at times.
I think we can spare a little time to be sweet to ourselves. My personal luxury is a cup of tea in bed with Netflix and a hot water bottle. Completely achievable.