For some reason, the first several times I read the title of Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, I did so with a decidedly American/Hollywood inflection, like the title of a horror or sci-fi film, to indicate a state of heightened anxiousness or frenzy. But this was not de Botton’s intention. “Status anxiety” represents a state of anxiousness about status. That is, how we feel about how we fit in in society, how we are perceived, where we fall on the haves vs. have nots continuum, and whether we are a “success.”
Botton’s book is divided up into two parts: causes and solutions. There are five subcategories in both sections, some of which I found surprising, and all of which I found interesting and informative.
The first of de Botton’s “causes” is “lovelessness.” According to de Botton, every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first–the story of our quest for “sexual love”–is well known and has been well charted in music and literature. This type of love (“romantic love,” if you prefer) is socially accepted and celebrated. But the second love story–the story of our quest for love from the world–is a more secret and shameful tale.
At this point, you may be thinking what I was thinking, which is that I don’t put a lot of stock in what the world thinks of me. To which I would respond “okay, just keep reading.”
Continuing, de Botton offers the following:
The attentions of others matter to us because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value, as a result of which affliction we tend to allow others’ appraisals to play a determining role in how we see ourselves. Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among.
Still convinced that you don’t care? Okay. How about an exercise? Picture yourself meeting a stranger for the first time. Or going to your ten year high school reunion. How long do you talk to that person before one or both of you are talking about what you “do”? And by “do” you’re not talking about movies you like to watch or where you like to exercise. You are talking about your career because that plays a huge role in how we define ourselves and others.
Which leads into the next cause of “status anxiety,” which is “expectation.” Botton talks about how the determination of whether we have “enough,” whether it be esteem or wealth, is never determined in a vacuum, but by comparison. That is, we make such determinations by comparing our condition with a reference group, a set of people who we believe resemble us. We expect to have as much as, say, people we went to school and/or grew up with, because we come from a similar background and had similar opportunities. If we have more, we feel good about ourselves, and if we have less, we feel bad. Thus, keeping up with (and ideally surpassing) the proverbial “Jones” family isn’t just petty; it is a necessary consideration to give our status context, and therefore relevance.
The other three causes of “status anxiety” are meritocracy, snobbery, and dependence. I won’t go into great detail here, but there are some interesting insights on the developments out of the feudal system into industrialized society. Also on how status anxiety varies depending on whether your “status” is based on luck, inherited wealth, innate skill, or acquired knowledge. Also how it is impacted by dependence on, say a boss vs. dependence on raw but diminishing talent, like say athleticism.
Moving on to the solutions, the first (not surprisingly, considering the source) is “philosophy.” There was a subsection in this portion called “intelligent misanthropy” that delighted me just by its title alone. But philosophy is a great way to overcome status anxiety, and de Botton lays out just precisely how that can be accomplished. The other solutions are art, religion, politics, and bohemia. I’m still not 100% certain what “bohemia” is, but I think life would be a lot more fun if there was more bohemia involved. In the book, de Botton describes what was apparently a whole bohemian movement. It was this group of people at the beginning of the 19th century that dressed simply, lived in cheaper parts of town, read a lot, seemed not to care much about money, were frequently of melancholic temperament, and their allegiances were to art and emotion not to business and material success. Also, the idea that money and workaday occupations must corrupt the soul, or destroy the capacity for “tender sensations,” has reverberated down the history of bohemia. I think I would have fit right in.
I really enjoy all of de Botton’s works. The writing is very good and the topics are always thought-provoking and intelligent. This is one of my favorites of his.