the luxury trap

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari beautifully explains the reasons why our ancestors decided to transition from the life of a forager to the life of a farmer. However, once they became farmers and as the agricultural societies prospered, this change in lifestyle proved to be a huge mistake. As Harari writes, “The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC. But nobody realized what was happening. Every generation continued to live the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done. Paradoxically, a series of ‘improvements’, each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers.”

The main reason that people at that time made such a grave miscalculation was because they didn’t think about the consequences of their decisions. The plan was simple — work harder and you would have a better life. So, the farmers didn’t worry about putting some extra work in order to get a bountiful harvest so that they could fill their and their children’s stomachs when things didn’t go in their favor. This made perfect sense and it worked fine initially, but then it led to some terrible consequences such as an exponential increase in population, permanent settlements transitioning into hotbeds of contagious diseases, and other hardships like becoming more susceptible to droughts and granaries getting targeted by thieves, robbers and enemies.

Since it had taken generations to transform the society to what was then, the new generations couldn’t simply go back to the old ways. They were trapped.

The pursuit of an easier life unfortunately ended up in exponential hardship, and that was not the end of it. This goes on till today. There are countless young college and university graduates who take difficult and demanding positions in top-level companies, firms and organizations, with the strategy that they will work hard at their jobs to earn a significant amount of money that will enable them to quit, get an early retirement and follow their passions and interests when they are in their mid to late thirties. But these expectations don’t end up matching with reality. By the time they reach that age range, they have families, children going to school, heavy mortgages, extravagant houses, two or more expensive cars and are biased towards living a king size life with visits to expensive restaurants, pricey alcohol, and vacations to exotic locales around the world. Are they determined to go back to cultivating their passions and starting a new venture or business from scratch? Of course not. They have come too far to live the old life of struggles again. Instead, in order to keep up with their exuberant lifestyle, they multiply their efforts at their respective jobs and keep slaving away day by day.

Harari further explains, “One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”

This luxury trap brings with it an invaluable lesson. Over the years, humanity’s unquenchable thirst for luxury has given rise to incredible waves of change that have transformed this planet in ways no one desired or expected. It turns out that people’s quest for an easier and effortless life ends up bringing a cumulative effect on their lifestyle and makes it even more difficult and complicated. 

In other words, it’s never wise to trade quick gains in the short-term for irreversible consequences in the long-term.