I had a discussion with wifey while driving home from dinner today that no matter how we tell ourselves not to judge a book by its cover, it’s only human that we do. Afterall we have two eyes.

(This is semi-related to my earlier post on the Chinese MTV.)

We were at Marina Square and were window-browsing some watches. Not Swatch or Seiko – I’m talking about Tag Hauer, Longines, Rolex, etc. These watches easily cost $3,000 up to $100,000+. Then comes the question: Why do people wear such expensive watches?

Back in the early days, a watch is a watch. It does one simple thing – tell time (and maybe day/date). Mechanical watch movements have been invented long, long ago. I don’t think it gets any more complicated these days. Digital watches can do miracles as well. Even back when I was in primary school some 20 years ago, I had Casio watches that could store phonebook entries of my entire class… and maybe some exam answers. Nowadays there’s even GPS watches accurate to the millisecond. Patek Philippe, beat that!

Today’s watches are jewelry. They not only make you look better; they also convey a hidden message to people who “know” them, like how you’ll know that an auntie’s pasar malam LV bag is an obvious fake, or that a Lexus RX300 is actually a Toyota Harrier rebadged.

At different “levels” of society, we use material items to communicate subtle messages related to ones’ wealth and social status. Why?

When wealth catches up with us, it’s only natural that we spend some to improve our quality of life. Some of us buy a car or a bigger house, or go on a holiday in a more exquisite airline. Over time, we get used to our higher standards of living.

But as with any living thing, humans are resistant to change. By change meaning anything – environment, wealth, people, comfort. We will try to keep things at our comfort level (and thus happiness), and that also means getting around people of the same comfort level. To do so, we establish a connection by using material items to send each other subtle messages: “Hi, I am as ho seh (well to do) as you are.”

Just think about it for a moment. I’m not going to cite any examples here for racial/religious/social reasons but you get the idea.

I know, it’s weird analogy of mine, but people spend tonnes of money to make themselves look good and feel confident. People go after branded goods for this very reason. Is a LV bag really worth $3,000? Is a Rolex really worth $8,000?

But how much is enough? Wealth can buy happiness, but only up to a certain extent. Once you’ve gone over the threshold, things start to go downhill. Studies say it’s approximately $75,000 per year.

To break this cycle we need to resist temptation to “level up” further. Some of us simply just move away from a city to a town where the pace of life becomes slower. Some of us just occupy ourselves with silly hobbies. But some of us are stuck in a rat race.

I don’t really have a closure to this discussion yet, so I’ll think more about it and post an update. Meanwhile do drop a note if you have any thoughts…