Status Anxiety: Reviews

Jennifer Levasseur in the Times Picayunne, 25 July 2004

It’s a common sight. A lover’s quarrel between a young man and woman – say, at a coffee shop – erupts. The woman screams, shakes her fist, curses, points. She hurls her drink at the man, nearly overturning her chair as she scrambles to make a dramatic exit. No one seems to mind. We expect these public throes of passion when it comes to sexual love.

But as Alain de Botton tells us in his latest book, “Status Anxiety,” there’s a love we all secretly yearn for that usually remains quiet and internal. We desire love and acceptance – even glory – from the world, but we can’t scream out for it in our coffee shops. We mustn’t expect sympathetic glances in the street if we beg for it. We can’t even celebrate it when we receive it unless we do so in the guise of congratulating ourselves on a promotion, or an award or a raise. We can call it “bettering ourselves” or “becoming successful,” but we can never admit that we’re searching for love or self-worth from the acquaintances and strangers around us. It is almost unspeakable because, as de Botton tells us, “Status anxiety is the price we pay for acknowledging that there is a public distinction between a successful and an unsuccessful life.”

As in his other clever and insightful books, de Botton has chosen a single topic and explores its myriad possibilities with clarity and precision. In his popular “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” de Botton finds essential life lessons in the life and work of Marcel Proust, best known for his opus “In Search of Lost Time” and chronic debilitating illness that left him bedridden. De Botton’s “Art of Travel” helps us to understand our need to take flight and instructs us how we can do so without even leaving our own bedrooms. In these and in his other equally illuminating books, he gives us a deeper understanding of things we thought we already knew.

And this holds true in “Status Anxiety.” With clear and often comical prose, he leads us to our own insights into the human condition. Specifically, he gently forces us to evaluate our struggle for status: why we want it, what it can give us if we attain it, what lurks behind the search and what really drives us to want it at all.

At the beginning of “Status Anxiety,” de Botton explains his thesis for this book: “Status Anxiety possesses an exceptional capacity to inspire sorrow. Hunger for status is useful but can kill. Best way of addressing condition is to understand and speak of it.”

Though he writes conversationally, he also gives the background and history characteristic of a serious scholar. He includes lots of photographs, charts, reproductions of artwork, graphics and cartoons. The images add to our understanding and give a necessary break from the reassessment of our lives that this book prompts.

The book is constructed in two major sections (“Causes of Status Anxiety” and “Solutions to Status Anxiety”), with many subsections and pithy mini-chapters. In “Causes,” we learn that our appetite for status has changed throughout history, just as our opportunities and knowledge have evolved. De Botton charts the movement to show the progression to our current state: Status is desirable because it proves that we are intelligent, hardworking, talented and, therefore, lovable. We measure status by how much money a person has, and by how much power that money demands. But, he asks, do that money and power really translate to the love and acceptance we crave? Have we achieved our goal, or have we replaced it? And what role does our consumer culture play in all this?

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