Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
Coco Chanel in 1936.
(Credit: Lipnitzki / Roger-Viollet via The New York Times)
Everybody says that the best things in life are free. But if that's the case, why are we so rarely satisfied with life's necessities — along with sunshine, love and the stars above? Reflecting the paradox, the designer Coco Chanel is reputed to have said, "The best things in life are free. The second-best things are very, very expensive."
Do you agree? What in your experience are the best and second-best things, and what have they brought to your life?
The best things in life really are free. They are indispensable and always with us, like air, sunlight and water. We pay them little attention, taking them for granted. Only when you are about to lose something — when your eyesight goes dim, your health begins to fade or the natural resources you rely upon grow scarce or are polluted — do you start to realize how precious it was.
The second-best, most priceless thing, I think, is my acting career — which can't be measured in dollars. It was simply destiny.
Many young people who are just starting out say that they are willing to do anything to attain success, but I wouldn't have been entitled to achieve my dreams if I had pursued my art at the cost of my health, for example, or if I had been willing to cast any of the other "best things" aside. Often luck is a big factor, and so if you don't reach such a goal, it doesn't reflect on you.
It is wonderful when such dreams come true. I am so grateful.
My initial reaction to this question is that nothing is free. Even the sun causes cancer. Water is getting more and more expensive. Everybody tells you that marriage is work. I feel lucky that my needs are few. It is really good to feel loved and to love, and that doesn't cost anything. The other thing I like is art, meaning books and movies and paintings — museums — and music, and that is not too expensive either.
I have a prejudice against expensive things. Usually they're about status or snobbery — that's what I think Coco Chanel is actually talking about, even if she'd deny it. First-rate examples of most nice things can be found very cheaply if you trust your own sensibility. (Not to be too hard on Coco — she was a good businesswoman who priced the fruits of her talents dearly; it was in her interests to promote the costly.)
Also, I've learned that once you get what you want, you will just want either a greater amount of it, or you will want something else. The best thing to have is a vocation — to like doing something rather than having something. Because then the wanting more is just about wanting to be able to do it better, and that actually pays off.
The very best thing in life, happiness, can only be a byproduct of something that's authentically good (e.g., a kind deed, a good night's sleep, love) and is absent from any market. The second-best things, to which we turn out of impatience or despair, are pricey because no price can approximate the value of the best things.
Trying to replace authentic happiness with some purchased object or service is the equivalent of substituting a sleeping pill-induced stupor for a good night's sleep. In the 19th century, some American journals published this definition: "Happiness is like a butterfly, which when pursued seems always just beyond your grasp; but if you sit down quietly, may light upon you." Ceasing this materialistic pursuit costs nothing at all!
If the pursuit of happiness is condemned to be self-defeating, what should our guide be? The optimist in me believes that there is something innate in humans that, like the mechanism that prompts sunflowers to follow the sun across the sky, can help unleash our creative side. For the hell of it.With happiness the unintended byproduct, the butterfly that sits softly on our shoulder.
Alas, the Sirens of daily toil can distract us and turn us into consumers who like what they buy, buy what they think they like, and end up bored and dissatisfied — permanently unable to specify the nature of their discontent and living confirmations of Mark Twain's point about the "limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities."
On the other hand, Dorothy Parker said that we ought to "Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves." Of course, necessities take care of themselves only for those people who belong to the tiny segment of society where privilege reproduces itself.
A civilized society provides everyone with the conditions that will give them the freedom vigorously and creatively to pursue their own goals. But for this to happen, each must have liberty from fear, hunger and exploitation — as well as, according to Virginia Woolf, a "room of one's own."
Chanel was right: The second-best things in life are very expensive — because people will often pay more for what they don't need than for what they need.
Luxury is often judged on moral grounds, but if you think economically, there are great benefits. It helps to make money go around, bringing dollars out of the pockets of the rich and becoming a source of craftsmanship.
It's a very good thing when a hotel is able to attract clients who are ready to pay $80,000 a night for a suite, because that provides a living for so many: the workers who built the suite, the architects who designed the hotel, the artisans who made the furniture, the staff who work there. There is also great pride in such work — that suite is a work of art in everyday use, stocked with custom-made and beautiful furniture.
I've never been much of a materialist. I lived in the small, Soviet apartment of my youth long after I could afford not to. If you were to visit my home in Moscow now, you'd see that it basically resembles a nice hotel with a nondescript resident: There's no great artwork, no Faberge eggs in sight! Only me, usually lounging in my Brooklyn Nets track suit. (Cost: $95!)
The way I see it, the "second-best things" or very expensive things are only worthwhile if they serve a utilitarian purpose. Sailing makes me seasick, so I have a yacht but enjoy it only because it lets me jet-ski. Getting better at the sport is a personal goal that I work hard at.
The best thing about the yacht is free — the satisfaction of having risen to a new challenge and mastered a new move (which is especially difficult if you're 6'8"!). This is something that no one can do for me.
I couldn't care less about the yacht, but I value my personal growth and am happy to invest in it – along with the occasional fine wine.
I was so fortunate to have been given a voice that appeals to people. To be able to flourish and find my fans when so many people are unable to pursue their dream jobs was a divine blessing. Such a gift can be developed further, but it can't be repaid or bought: Isn't that evidence that the best things in life are free?
One of the best things in my life is when I see an expression of excited happiness on the face of an audience member at one of my concerts. I may not know his name, but we share a true communion! Or my 3 year-old-son's smile when he sees me — he always runs to me and jumps up to hug me so tenderly. Or when a stranger on the street says hello, which gives us both a feeling of happiness for the rest of the day.
If love is a gift of the self, that excited look, that sincere smile, that greeting prove that the best things in life are free. If you're ever in doubt about it, hold your breath for as long as you can, then inhale and exhale the oxygen that Mother Nature gives us, on the house. The best things in life are available to those who take the time to observe and enjoy them.
Coco Chanel was right. The best things in life are free, because human interaction is the basis of happiness — the feeling that you, in union with other humans, are taking part in actions that benefit the world and humanity in one way or another.
In our society, social relations between human beings are subdued to economic relations between goods and services. This leads to people being alienated from what they produce and also from each other. The ideological nature placed on merchandise suggests that the more of it we acquire, the happier we will be. But anyone who has experienced the limited and short-lived gratification of purchasing a coveted item knows that this is simply not the case. In fact, the more things we have, the less we are able to even feel that instant satisfaction.
Only when the best things life are fulfilled can we focus on the second best — the products, knowledge and experiences that provide ease, beauty, creativity and enlightenment. Sadly, such things are very expensive and enjoyed only by a minority, which generally expects the second best things to make up for the lack of the first.