The evening before I sat to write this essay on indulgence, I indulged.
My sister and I shared a bottle — OK, maybe two — of bourbon-infused red wine. She served the full-bodied red blend, brimming with vanilla, caramel and blackberry notes, with blue cheese and fig jam on sesame and sea salt crackers. We laughed into the night, listening to old-school R&B while she showed me pictures of the pool she’s thinking about building in her backyard.
It felt so fancy.
Good wine. Craft beer. Pricey stinky cheese. Spending time with family. These are our COVID-era indulgences, alongside fancy kitchen gadgets or renovations to our homes and gardens. The reason is simple: Our home bases are our only true safe spaces.
“Everything we are doing is centered around where we live,” said Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at Penn’s Wharton School. “We’re cooking at home. We’re working at home. The thing to think about is: Once COVID is over and we are allowed to go back, will we indulge in the ways we used to?”
Not likely. Even as the economy contracts — our gross domestic product was down almost 32 percent during the second quarter of 2020 — sales of home furnishings, food, and recreational vehicles continue to hold steady, indicating we are investing in our nesting.
What was once an indulgence is now a need
An indulgence, explained Vinod Venkatraman, director of the Center for Applied Research in Decision Making at Temple’s Fox School of Business, is defined as the act of doing something that brings us joy in the moment. Sometimes we indulge in unhealthy ways, like excessive drinking or gambling. Sometimes we just want to treat ourselves, spending money on luxuries that elevate our status among our peers so we feel worthy. And that makes us feel good.
Because they are often seen as superficial, indulgences have a bad rep. Those of us who grew up in working-class — and especially religious — families may have been taught that most indulgences were a waste of time and money. Women often feel the need to justify treating themselves and are made to feel guilty when they put desires ahead of family.
Indulgences, essentially, are what we do for ourselves after all of our needs are met. Like a luxe pair of Gucci sunglasses, they were something we had to earn.
In recent decades, we had grown to enjoy everyday indulgences and splurges like drinking gourmet coffee, going to the salon for blowouts, and eating dinner at restaurants a couple of nights a week.
COVID-19 changed all that. During a time when taking care of basic needs — like going grocery shopping — comes with risk, even small indulgent rituals, like frothing our own milk for a latte at home, really feels like a special occasion.
“Our health became uncertain, our jobs became uncertain, everything about our safety came into immediate question,” Kahn said. “Our reference points were reset. Our definition of indulgences didn’t change, but what we considered indulgences began to.”
In this way, we’re in the process of resetting many of our habits and routines that helped us maintain a baseline of happiness. Working out isn’t on my parents’ list of needs, but it’s on mine, so figuring out how to do yoga outside at what was once an indulgent trip to a boutique studio, became something of a necessity.
Elevating our basic needs
The result: Being able to meet our basic needs, Venkatraman said, now feels like indulgence. It’s a luxury to work from home, while so many people had to report to jobs that put them in harm’s way. For those who can afford it, there has been joy in getting groceries delivered, or stocking up the pantry or toilet paper supply. And after months of letting our hair do its wild and gray thing, getting our manes cut and colored feels like an indulgence, even if it is sorely needed.
Of course, true luxury hasn’t gone away. Spinning on Peloton bikes and ordering take-out from your favorite upscale restaurant are the ultimate pandemic indulgences. Louis Vuitton is introducing a face shield monogrammed with its iconic logo, which darkens in sunlight like a cool pair of transition sunglasses. The price of this personal protective “it” accessory — $991.
There’s an allure to indulgence that’s disguised as need right now. “We just don’t want a pillow for our bed, we wanted the most comfortable pillow,” said Venkatraman. We don’t want any old office chair, we want the best chair. We want the good cheese. And we can justify it because they are practical.”
At the same time, more traditional indulgences feel out of place. How can we justify designer handbags, clothes, shoes and jewelry — all of which have experienced a significant drop in sales — while so many Americans have lost their jobs or died? “Buying a designer bag during these times is tone deaf,” says Pamela Danziger, a luxury market expert and founder of Lancaster County-based Unity Marketing. “We’ve all been reoriented with the frailty of human life.”
So how much of this reset will remain a decade from now? It’s possible that our desire for luxury items won’t be as strong, at least while the future of the economy remains uncertain.
But these habits could last, Danziger said. It will be a while yet — perhaps even years after the vaccine — before we will stop asking ourselves: Can I afford this? Will this really make me happier?
“The definition [of indulgences] has ultimately changed to [having what it takes] to live your best life,” Danziger said.