November 18, 2011

Prince Jefri of Brunei

Luxury is thought to mean having what one wants. Luxury is living opulently in a grand house with plenty of servants and a diamond tiara or two locked in the designer safe. Luxury is food and wine second to none, a walk-in closet, and love with no obstacles. Luxury is not having to get up in the morning if you don’t want to, or going to the movies on a weekday afternoon. Luxury is a good fix.

But those are mostly examples of material luxury, which is different than existential luxury. The best luxury of all is to be free and happy.

According to popular wisdom, happiness is fettered to a person’s level of financial freedom. If you’re broke, money isn’t buying you much freedom. If you’re rolling in the good stuff, you can buy your way to happiness. They say that money buys freedom but not happiness,  but the two are linked like his-and-hers bathrooms.

The kink in this wisdom is the material. Possessions. Stuff. Houses. Cars. Knick-knacks. Dependents. How free can a person be when they are in charge of all that? Only as free as they are psychologically. Therefore, even if a very rich person with many possessions wants to be happy, their mind is the only thing standing in the way. But how many people does one know like that? Not many, probably not even one. Belongings equal baggage. Full stop.

“Money doesn’t buy them happiness, it buys one elephantine encumbrance.”

The more belongings, the more burdens. Small house, small burden. Big house, big burden. Many houses, many burdens. Material luxury can be measured. Your average rich person seems to live well. Their burden appears manageable. They have a house and a nice car or two, bills, payments, and responsibilities. In the extreme, the filthy stinking rich live in monumental splendor. They have many houses, many cars, boats, planes, and thousands of toys. Their burden is gigantic, and they make it so by acquiring all they have with no apparent end. Money doesn’t buy them happiness, it buys one elephantine encumbrance.

One wonders what life is like for those who experience material luxury in the 0.1%. It is easy to assume they are happier because they don’t have to fly on packed planes and can go on holiday whenever and wherever they want. How nice for them to be able to simply buy their way out of a jam. The problem is that very rich people usually get into bigger jams, and the cost of getting out of them is proportionally higher. Prince Jefri of Brunei comes to mind. It is easy to envy the grandeur and the beauty a virtually unlimited bank account can afford. But such wealth is dangerous—as it should be.

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