Status Anxiety: Reviews

Maureen Gaffney in Irish Times, 1 May 2004

After reading a newspaper profile of someone prominent and successful, do you find that you sometimes react with a preoccupied gaze, a brittle smile?

Or after hearing news of a colleague’s achievement, or even of the great success of a friend, do you react with an over-extended pause? Of course you don’t . . . But if you do, you are suffering from what writer-philosopher Alain de Botton calls status anxiety, a worry that you are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one, “a worry so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives”.

Of course, you are unlikely to admit to such a shaming anxiety. At least, you might have been, until you read the book. Alain de Botton has made it acceptable, even fashionable maybe, to admit to this problem with no name.

“Every adult life,” he writes, “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 well charted. The second – the story of our quest for love from the world – is a more secret and shameful tale. And yet, this second love story is no less intense than the first.”

When he tells us that “the most profitable way of dealing with the condition may be to attempt to understand and to speak of it”, you may think that you are dealing with the common self-help book genre. But you would be wrong. This is an extended, thought-provoking, often funny philosophical reflection on a fascinating aspect of the human condition. Alain de Botton first came to fame with How Proust Can Change Your Life, and subsequently with The Consolations of Philosophy and The Art of Travel. His talent is to take topics that do not fit neatly into any one intellectual category and to apply a kind of hybrid philosophical-cultural analysis to them. But it is his distinctive tone that marks him out from other social commentators – allusive, anecdotal, compassionate, civilised.

His thesis is that status anxiety, while it is a part of our nature and has its uses (to encourage excellence and self- improvement), possesses an exceptional capacity to inspire sorrow. It is a particular affliction in Western societies where to be unseen and ignored is the worst psychological and social torture and to be termed a “loser” the ultimate social disgrace. He analyses the causes of status anxiety: the quest for love (his most lacklustre section); snobbery (a delicious laying bare of “the terror behind haughtiness”); expectation, meritocracy, and dependence. Here he is on more familiar territory – much traversed by economists and sociologists. It all goes back to the American Revolution in 1776, which marked the transition from hierarchical feudal societies – where status was defined at birth and highly unlikely to change thereafter – to the modern ideal of democratic, equal, meritocratic societies.

Such societies have delivered unprecedented prosperity – but at a cost. For in such societies, success is formally and theoretically open to anybody, and so our attitudes to poverty and lack of success have become more punitive. At a psychological level, “low status has become all the harder to endure and all the more worrying to contemplate”. And if that were not enough, we are trapped in what political scientist Robert Lane, in his book, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, calls the hedonic treadmill by relentless social comparison. The more people get, the higher their expectations and aspirations of more – and so on it goes.

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