Happiness And The Evolution Of Luxury Part 1

This is the first in a two-part article looking at the luxury market from an entirely different perspective – evolution! Michelle Hawkins, Head of Happiness at marketing consultancy The Flying Dodo looks at how luxury brands can improve their offering by considering how and why our responses to luxury have evolved over time.

Luxury is not a modern invention – quite the opposite. Luxury has been around for hundreds of years. In museums around the world, we see the luxuries of our ancestors as treasures that have been discovered from deep within ancient graves and burial mounds.

So, if “luxury” has been around for so many years, could luxury play a fundamental role in our evolutionary history and be more than a simple hedonistic pleasure? Yes is the answer and, like everything in life, it comes down to our over-riding motivation to be happy.

In this article, I’m going to share a different perspective on luxury and how I believe luxury brands must evolve to meet four conditions for happiness that have developed over the course of our evolutionary history;

1. Absence of Pain (survival)
2. Sensory Pleasures (rewards)
3. Connectedness (relationships & belonging)
4. Meaning (greater purpose)

Absence of pain

Think back to our ancestors for a moment. Luxury for them was saying;  “look at me, I’ve got excess resources. Wouldn’t I make a great mate? You and your offspring will survive and be well provided for with me.” And, by being chosen as a mate, they would both get rewarded with the release of feel good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which would in turn make them feel happy.  Luxury in this context makes us happy because it increases our status and improves our chances of success in life in terms of longevity, health and attracting a good mate.

Even the word “luxury” comes from the Latin “Luxus” which had its origin in agriculture and meant “exceeding growth”. However, in a world with many resources and mass affluence, luxury is no longer preserved for the elite. It is still a social indicator but the quantity of resources no longer matters as much as the qualitative factors. These factors are psychological constructs that are based around aspirations, experience, perceived scarcity and changing the way we feel.

Sensory Pleasures

Luxury is a multi-sensory experience and sensory pleasures relate to those things that are beneficial to survival and our flourishing as a species – some of which are learned from experience and others hard-wired into our survival. A sensory pleasure signifies a stimulus that is useful to us and makes us feel good whereas displeasure is a sign of danger and makes us feel bad.

The rule for happiness is that it’s not the intensity but rather the frequency of sensory pleasures that’s important – lots of little things are better than one big thing.

It’s easy to consider how this might be applied to a luxury service like a spa experience but what about a tangible product?

My favourite example is Pengaligon’s. When you buy a Penhaligon’s fragrance, you enjoy the multi-sensory experience of buying and receiving as much as the product itself. The moment you walk in to the store, calming music plays gently in the background to encourage you to dwell. Wonderful aromas fill your nostrils and evoke emotions. Your fingers delight as they touch the heavy, cold glass bottles. Your eyes dart around the room enjoying the nostalgia of being in an old apothecary shop with a nod to the rich opulence of colonialism.

When you buy a fragrance, the bottle isn’t just put into a bag. It’s packaged so beautifully that the person receiving almost doesn’t want to open it. The receiver first sees the glossy premium packaging and the calming yet lavish colours of sage and gold, reminding you of a fine Georgian house. The weight of the bottle is a reassuring sign of quality. As they untie gold silky the ribbon, anticipation builds. Then they open the gift bag and fragrance from scented sheets spills into the air. By the time the recipient gets to the bottle, they’re not sure if they prefer the fragrance or the packaging itself!

Sensory luxury makes us happy because sensory pleasures trigger feel good chemicals. By building anticipation through lots of little pleasures, the feel good chemical dopamine is also released. Such sensory experiences change the way we feel, creating stronger and more vivid memories.

Check back with us next week for Happiness and the Evolution of Luxury Part 2. Meanwhile, if you’d like to discuss any of the points raised here leave a comment below or tweet us @futureofluxury, @thehappydodo.


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