Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

I am sure most people know what is meant by ‘Status Anxiety’ even if they don’t have a definition at the ready. I’m sure most people can feel it in their gut and even seeing a title like ‘Status Anxiety’ on a shelf may trigger a reaction. But as Alain de Botton explains, status anxiety has not always been with us, is subject to evolution, may have its benefits and can be managed. Perhaps even cured.

Cover image of Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton defines ‘Status Anxiety’ as a ‘worry that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our own society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one’. De Botton expands on this definition and lays out his thesis; that status anxiety is a hunger that, like others, can be beneficial or can cause sorrow. The difference will depend on our approach.

It is a great start to the book. From there de Botton describes five causes of status anxiety and five ways to overcome status anxiety.

The first cause of status anxiety de Botton investigates is ‘Lovelessness’. Specifically, the lack of a love that is a desire to be an object of concern for others, to have our presence noted and our views listened to. While other forms of love are celebrated by culture when they are achieved, or empathised with when they are lacking, this type of love is one society is less likely to acknowledge.

Those without status remain unseen, they are treated brusquely, their complexities are trampled upon and their identities ignored.

Next, de Botton examines ‘Snobbery’ – a habit of conveying respect on symbols of achievement rather than character. He diagnoses snobs as having a weak independent judgement combined with an appetite for the opinions of those the snobs deem important.

If poverty is the customary material penalty for low status, then neglect and faraway looks will be the emotional penalties that a snobbish world appears unable to stop imposing on those bereft of the symbols of importance.

The next two causes of status anxiety – ‘Expectation’ and ‘Meritocracy’ – are closely related and de Botton devotes more space to covering them. Both arise from upheavals Western Europe and America experienced in the past few centuries which go by various names – Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of capitalism, etc. The ideas and ideals which inspired these events and the intended and unintended effects of them represent a break with the ideas of the Greeks and of Christianity which dominated the West previously. Several barriers to material success came crashing down in the era of revolutions, creating societies which aspired towards equality, equal opportunity and meritocracy. Unfortunately, this eroded our ability to blame external factors for our outcomes. Instead, we find ourselves judged for our choices, work ethic and personal responsibility.

In the case of Expectation, de Botton argues that, paradoxically, as the West became lands of plenty, people became more anxious about whether they had enough. Subjectively comparing ourselves to reference groups created much fear and anguish.

The price we have paid for expecting to be so much more than our ancestors is a perpetual anxiety that we are far from being all we might be.

In his analysis of Meritocracy, De Botton describes the narratives that previously consoled the poor and those without status which have disappeared from culture to be replaced by alternatives that argue that people should be judged for their ability to positively impact society; that status and moral worth are correlated; that charity and welfare is counterproductive. I do not believe De Botton is overlooking the many ways society has benefited from the rise of democracy and equality. Nor is he advocating a return to a pre-Enlightened world. Instead, I interpret that he wants to acknowledge the bad that came with the good so that we can do better at living contentedly in what are overall better conditions for most people.

Thanks to the meritocratic ideal, multitudes were granted the opportunity to fulfill themselves. Gifted and intelligent individuals, who for centuries had been held down within an immobile, caste-like hierarchy, were now free to express their talents on a more or less level playing field. No longer were background, gender or race or age an impassable obstacle to advancement. An element of justice had finally entered into the distribution of rewards.

But there was, inevitably, a darker side to the story for those of low status. If the successful merited success, it necessarily followed that the failures had to merit their failure. In a meritocratic age, justice appeared to enter into the distribution of poverty as well as wealth. Low status came to seem not merely regrettable, but deserved.

The final cause of Status Anxiety that de Botton diagnoses is ‘Dependence’. De Botton argues that pre-modern society was rigid and dependable but modern society is fluid and has lost dependability. With their greater freedom of choice and opportunity, citizens in a modern society are dependent on their talent, their luck, their employer, their employer’s profitability and the global economy. All of which contribute to make it more difficult to know what tomorrow will bring.

De Botton’s prescribed solutions to status anxiety are Philosophy, Art, Politics, Christianity and Bohemia.

The help offered by Philosophy is covered briefly, though when reading it I felt it contained much I wanted to take note of and remember. De Botton covers the valuable arguments for moderation, an internal self-worth and a disregard for outside influences.

The chapter on Art looks at how the art world responded to the changes modernity brought. How painting, theatre and literature shone a light on what has been lost or forgotten, on what is being overlooked and undervalued, or critiquing the accepted status quo. While humour and satire was used to criticise the new elites and authorities.

In the hands of the best comics, laughter hence acquires a moral purpose, jokes become attempts to cajole others into reforming their characters and habits. Jokes are a way of sketching a political ideal, of creating a more equitable and saner world. As Samuel Johnson saw it, satire is only another way, and a particularly effective one, of ‘censuring wickedness or folly’. In the words of John Dryden, ‘the true end of satire is the amendment of vices’.

Politics, de Botton reminds us, is the mechanism through which we can change society. But first must come understanding. In particular, de Botton emphasises understanding that the ideals our society currently champions, and even the status quo itself, are recent inventions and are not as entrenched as we assume them to be. As much as society aspires to equality and meritocracy and as much good as that has done, the political process can draw attention to the areas where this has yet to be achieved, the reasons such ideals may not be universally achieved and even to voice rejection of these ideals and promote alternatives.

Through political battles, different groups will attempt to shape the honour system of their communities in order to win dignity for themselves in the face of opposition from those with a stake in a prior arrangement. Through a ballot box, a gun, a strike or sometimes a book, these different groups will strike to redirect their community’s notions of who is rightfully owed the privileges of a high-status position.

Though the chapter specifically on Christianity is a short one, it is a theme which crosses over to other parts of the book. De Botton mentions aspects of Christian philosophy which consoled the unfortunate in premodern times but which have perhaps lost importance. De Botton is not trying to make new converts to the religion but wants to draw attention to a few aspects of Christian values that he argues remain relevant and are useful to dealing with status anxiety. In particular, he discusses Christianity’s emphasis on mortality, community and alternative types of status.

Whatever differences exist between Christian and secular ideas of the activities which remain meaningful when viewed from the perspective of death, there seems a striking common emphasis on love, on authentic social relations, on charity; and a common condemnation of concerns for power, military strength, financial ambition and glory. There are certain activities that are almost universally unsuited to appear consequential beside the thought of death.

Finally, de Botton takes a look at Bohemia – subcultures which have rejected the materialistic status quo, from Romantics to Beatniks to Punks. De Botton describes their history, their philosophical underpinnings and the commonality of the various types.

Personally, I do not believe I suffer much from status anxiety. But the reasons I believe I have avoided it are not given great focus in de Botton’s analysis.

I have made an effort to avoid the trap of comparisons to other people. It was not easy, more like a psychological lobotomy I had to perform on myself piece by piece in my late-teens but with enormous benefits. Secondly, around the same age I tried to be more goal orientated with the understanding that not everything I want can be achieved and some goals will have to be sacrificed for others. I tried to develop a certainty around my own priorities and a discipline to sacrifice for the things I wanted most. And I have made sacrifices but it is much easier to accept them when you have a clear idea of what you are sacrificing them for.

Less intentionally, what has also helped is that most of my current friends are people I have been friends with since childhood, adolescence and university. In other words, since before our lives really began. We have all ended up in different places. Some married and had children early, some are yet to do either. Some did well academically, some have gone far in their careers (and they are mostly uncorrelated!) Some are materially wealthy, some are wealthy in life experiences, free time and social networks. I have found it difficult to feel envious and jealous within such diversity. Instead, I see choices and sacrifices, chance and luck, character and circumstance, plans and regrets, including my own.  

But, as I say, de Botton has not given these much emphasis. There is a little bit in the chapter on Philosophy on reasons to disregard public opinion and follow your internal conscience. In the chapter on Lovelessness, de Botton says that in an ideal world we would be impervious to the regard of others, would not be seduced by compliments and would know our own worth. But these are skills that can be learned. Shouldn’t learning these skills be included with the ideas he gives more time to?

In the case of my diverse group of friends, this directly contradicts one of the methods Bohemians use to counter status anxiety:

Bohemians have in consequence tended to display particular care when choosing who to spend time with. Some, like Thoreau, have escaped the corrupting influence of society altogether. Others have been assiduous in creating communities of congenial spirits, refusing to accept the kind of social life that naturally to befall us when we socialise with many of the characters whom we are thrown together with at school, and in families and workplaces.

Elsewhere, I felt there were viable modern alternatives for some of the ideas de Botton promotes or says have been lost. For example, the humility and equality of humanity before the awesomeness of God that Christianity emphasised in various ways is no longer very pervasive or persuasive in modern society. I have a certain respect for the sentiment and can see its merit but in my life it is provided by science, the history of which has repeatedly shown the folly of hubris when it comes to knowledge and certainty while also confirming the insignificance of our lives and concerns compared to the vastness and indifference of the cosmos.

Of course, just because these things have helped me does not mean they could work for most others who may find more merit in the alternatives in this book.

If I am so confident that I am safe from status anxiety why read this book? A first reason is that books on the history of ideas, or on prevalent modern issues, when well-written by a knowledgeable guide, always have value. I learned a great deal from this book even if it did not have immediate therapeutic benefit for my circumstances. I may not be de Botton’s target audience and though it was not his direct intention, de Botton’s perspective on how the modern world came to be the way it is and how this has impacted us culturally and psychologically is a strong point of the book and well worth reading.

In his Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes proposed that individuals had existed prior to the birth of societies and had joined these societies only for their own benefit, agreeing to surrender their natural rights in exchanged for protection – a seminal point repeated a few decades later by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government (1689). God had not, reasoned Locke, given Adam ‘private dominion’ over the earth, he had given it ‘to mankind in common’ for the enjoyment of everyone. Rulers were instruments of the people and were fit to be obeyed only in so far as they served the general interest. An astonishing modern idea was born: that the justification of governments lies in their ability to promote opportunities for prosperity and happiness among all those they rule over.

As a reader, I also enjoyed de Botton’s insights into literature whose themes investigate this issue, including Middlemarch and Mansfield Park. I think I will be returning to the Art chapter in this book frequently.

Overall, I found the book very enjoyable and would easily recommend it to anyone whether they suffer from the affliction or not. One factor that aided my enjoyment is that, though de Botton is a philosopher, and this is a philosophical book, this is a very light book to read. De Botton does not waste words and gets to his points very succinctly without failing to impart understanding. A second factor to its enjoyability is that it is a beautiful book. The pages are filled with photos, illustrations, cartoons and especially artwork. So, it is a much shorter book than it feels in your hands and a pleasure to read.

Status Anxiety was published in 2004. If anything, the phenomenon it warns of has become significantly worse in the social media era. We are often told that younger generations are struggling with their self-worth where the arena has mostly transitioned to a fake online environment. Whether the causes de Botton has listed need to be expanded and whether his prescribed remedies are successful or complete; de Botton is correct in his thesis that Status Anxiety warrants acknowledgement and understanding. This book is a good place to start.

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