Hedonism - noun [ U ] - living and behaving in ways that mean you get as much pleasure out of life as possible, according to the belief that the most important thing in life is to enjoy yourself.
As the Cambridge dictionary defines, Hedonism is all about seeking pleasure and self-indulgence. YOLO (You Live Only Once) aptly captures the spirit of the concept. Most of us imbibe this spirit and exhibit the same in a multitude of ways. But is this way of living new to us, and if so why and how would the pandemic affect this behaviour?
Hedonism, as a school of thought, is in sharp contrast to the Indian philosophy of leading an austere life. Simplicity has been part of our cultural fabric for many decades. Many of us would remember from our childhood – only the rich owned cars, holidays were largely summer times and usually to meet family, the concept of long weekends was unknown, new clothes were bought on special occasions like birthday or key festivals like Diwali and eating out was a mini event on its own. Things were planned for months in advance and everyone was okay with the wait.
We were taught to always save first and spend later. It was believed that one can be truly happy through academic or professional achievements. Pursuit of pleasure without these was considered frivolous and was frowned upon.
Bringing the change
Today, seeking pleasure is becoming a way of life. This seismic change was fuelled by multiple factors including industrialisation, globalisation and digitisation. It was akin to rising up the Maslow’s hierarchy. The economic boost helped a larger base of the Indian population to feel confident about fulfilling the basic needs. This, coupled with change in mindset brought by access and technology, has empowered Indians in breaking the age-old definition of what constitutes happiness.
A look at the gross domestic savings rate would help appreciate how consumerism has risen. It moved through phases – initially it was about acquisition for fulfilment of basic needs, then inching towards products of desire and subsequently the focus on ‘experience’ came to the fore.
According to Ipsos Global Trend Survey, more than 70% of urban connected Indians feel that the important thing is to ‘enjoy life today, tomorrow will take care of itself’. This is a rising trend. For evidence you need not look beyond the amount spent through credit cards increasing by 500% in six years. This shows that more and more Indians are not just comfortable about spending but also confident in their future or paradoxically do not care about the same at all.
The decline in savings and access to borrowed money has propelled India to a top consumption economy with every leading global brand wanting to own a piece of the pie.
Consider a few examples – Mercedes Benz delivered 200 cars in a single day during Dussehra in 2019, luxury brands like Armani, Chanel, Ermenegildo Zegna and many others are building localised strategies and international brands are owning the Indian makeup scene.
Initially Hedonism was attributed to the Gen Z and younger millennials. It has now crossed demographic, geographic and economic boundaries. The disposition of it could differ but there’s a fundamental shift in which all of us think and behave. Let’s look at few examples; The first car one buys is no longer in entry segment and not necessarily after five to seven years of ‘settled’ professional life. There is no shame in buying the latest premium phone through monthly instalments. Friday nights out do not need a reason beyond ‘let’s go out’ and Sundays are meant to be spent in malls, salons or movie theatres (with lounge seats) where you are treated as royalty. Curated international tours are a hit amongst senior citizens.
World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Economic Impact 2019 report states that India spends 94.8% of its total GDP contribution to travel and tourism on leisure. India is leading this list way ahead of its global peers like Mexico (94.1%), Spain (88.5%), China (81.4%) and the US (71.3%)
Not just travel and tourism, brands across all sectors realize this shift. Hence, be it automobiles, fashion, beauty products or even residential properties, everyone is selling an experience to tap into it.
It is not a generation-led change as one might tend to believe. The shift is more fundamental and altered the cultural DNA for decades to come. The save and spend mindset has turned into spend and save (if any left).
Given this focus on indulgence and enjoyment, the definition of work-life balance is changing. Ipsos Global Trends Survey found that more than 80% of urban connected Indian consumers feel that it’s more important to have a work life balance than a successful career. It’s almost intuitive; if one believes in living in the here and now, and exploring different facets of life, then the age-old principles of ‘work is everything’ and ‘guard your job’ become less potent. This also is on account of multiple opportunities being present as well as the skill set required to excel not being limited to education.
Enter Coronavirus or is it?
Obviously, the pandemic brought all the hedonistic wishes to a screeching halt, as everyone scrambled to maintain the basics. But this was more of an unexpected bump than a dead end. Directly or indirectly, no sector was protected from the initial impact of lockdown. Simplest of pleasures like road-side tea were curbed and for a long time. However, as we know behaviours take a while to change and those that are part of DNA even longer. After the initial paranoia settled in, many of us realised that restrictions are temporary and started to re-define means to seek pleasure.
One may not be able to visit a particular restaurant or go for that annual trek but that has not stopped us from trying out new things. Be it being a master chef, an amateur painter, picking up a musical instrument or one of the many interesting courses online. A lot of us have attempted to not let the outside environment affect us beyond a point and built our new regimes around what is feasible.
Technology has been a great friend in this uneven journey. It has allowed us not just to stay connected with our loved ones but also enabled various business to adapt helping us assuage the negativity. From the comfort of home, one could order basic groceries to gourmet food from a 5-star restaurant. Taking a virtual tour of your favourite museum, shopping from your preferred high street store, catching up with your friends (virtually) over a beer or even getting married, everything is becoming possible online.
Pandemic-led restrictions have been the severest unexpected litmus test and it has failed to subdue our true nature.
With unlock mode gaining traction, some numbers give a glimpse of how hedonism for Indians is here to stay; premium smartphone (Rs 25,000 onwards) grew (y-o-y) by 18% in H1 in 2020 despite offline stores being shut for couple of months, long weekend trips see 40% increase (month-on-month); leading jewellery retailer, Tanishq grew by 11% in Q3 (y-o-y) indicating both appetite and mindset which is seeking to move back to normal.
We know that the virus is going to be around for some time. It is imperative that we identify aspects critical to our happiness and explore avenues to continue or improvise the hooks to enjoy the same.
What can be more important than simple routes to happiness. After all, we live only once!
The author is client officer, Ipsos India