Posted by: Mike Willoughby | September 7, 2010

Still Spitting into the Wind

While on my travels to China this summer, I ran across an article in a Hong Kong newspaper with the title, “Luxury goods can’t buy happiness.”  The article points out that the rapidly growing Chinese economy is creating a new affluent class of spenders with money to burn and increasingly they are spending their money on luxury goods.  According to the author, China now accounts for 25% of the world’s purchases of luxury products with sales of $9.4 billion in 2009.  At this rate, China will soon outpace the U.S. in luxury product spending coming in second only to Japan.  This phenomenon is especially striking when one considers the per capita income in China is significantly below the U.S per capita income.  In America, luxury products account for less than 5% of middle-class consumer spending while luxury products may account for over 40% of consumer spending in China in that same middle-class category.

The author classifies Chinese luxury goods purchasers into three categories – The traditional wealthy elite, the trend-setting youth and the white collar workers.  The first two categories of luxury spenders are predictable and mirror similar categories in the west.  The really interesting category is the white collar “middle-class” category that is spending on luxury goods at a much higher rate than in other countries.  According to the article, the primary motive for these purchases by the middle-class is the improvement in perceived status they believe they will receive as they show off their purchases.  The author worries over the vicious cycle that could take hold in the middle-class as they try to “keep up with the Joneses” in “a competitive struggle to sport the latest and best Italian clothes, designer handbags, and the like.”

The author wraps up the piece, “Finally and most importantly, the scramble for luxury products doesn’t seem to have made Chinese any happier.  Indeed, in the most recent University of Michigan World Values Survey, China ranked 46th in the world with respect to the happiness of its citizens.  In my personal observation, the happiest people in Beijing are the laobaixing, or ordinary residents, I see in parks and other public spaces indulging in simple pleasures like singing and dancing together.  I seriously doubt that few, if any, of these folks care much about owning lots of luxury brand products.  It is often said that money can’t buy happiness; the same goes for owning a very expensive Luis Vuitton handbag.”

The author of this newspaper article is observing a phenomenon as old as civilization itself.  It is a lesson the Chinese civilization has already doubtless learned and forgotten many times over the millennia.  One only has to turn in the Bible to the wisdom literature of King Solomon we call Ecclesiastes to read the perspective of the wisest man to ever live on this topic.

 Oh, I did great things: built houses,
  planted vineyards,
  designed gardens and parks
    and planted a variety of fruit trees in them,
    made pools of water
    to irrigate the groves of trees.
I bought slaves, male and female,
   who had children, giving me even more slaves;
     then I acquired large herds and flocks,
    larger than any before me in Jerusalem.
  I piled up silver and gold,
    loot from kings and kingdoms.
 I gathered a chorus of singers to entertain me with song,
    and—most exquisite of all pleasures—
    voluptuous maidens for my bed.

 Oh, how I prospered! I left all my predecessors in Jerusalem far behind, left them behind in the dust. What’s more, I kept a clear head through it all. Everything I wanted I took—I never said no to myself. I gave in to every impulse, held back nothing. I sucked the marrow of pleasure out of every task—my reward to myself for a hard day’s work!

 Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing. 

Ecclesiastes 2:4-11 (The Message)

Money and luxury products didn’t buy happiness in 1400 BC anymore than those things buy happiness in 2010 AD.  And yet here we are 3500 years after Solomon reigned still spitting into the wind and chasing smoke.  Will we ever learn?

Until next week,

Meet me at the intersection!


  1. Sadly, I’m convinced that we (mankind in general) will never learn this lesson. However, hopefully those of us in Christ will continue to learn this lesson of faith (and probably in stages)…knowing that ‘naked we came into this world and naked we shall return’

    Thanks again for the thoughts!

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