Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety, first published in 2004, remains a thought-provoking and helpful text as I continue to think about happiness (and its absence.) De Botton, "a philosopher of everyday life," seeks in this book to acknowledge the intensity of status anxiety in contemporary Western society, to explore its causes, and to suggest some means of relief.
He begins with a brief set of definitions and a concise statement of his thesis:
Status [is] one's position in society... In a narrow sense, the word refers to one's legal or professional standing within a group... But in the broader--and here more relevant--sense, to one's value and importance in the eyes of the world...
Status anxiety [is] a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too low a rung or are about to fall to a lower one... Like confessing to envy (to which the emotion is related), it can be socially imprudent to reveal the extent of any anxiety and, therefore, evidence of the inner drama is uncommon, limited usually to a preoccupied gaze, a brittle smile or an over-extended pause after news of another's achievement.
[The book's thesis is] that status anxiety possesses an exceptional capability to inspire sorrow; that the hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses...[b]ut, like all appetites, its excesses can also kill; [and] that the most profitable way of addressing the condition may be to attempt to understand and to speak of it.
I suspect that the fears that "we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success" or that "we are currently occupying too low a rung or are about to fall to a lower one" are close at hand for many of us at the very best of times. But today, with the economy poised on the brink of ruin, with layoffs mounting and 401Ks melting away, these fears are lurking just below the surface (and bubbling over) almost everywhere we turn.
But my reading of de Botton suggests that our status anxiety and our fear of failure isn't purely--or even primarily--an economic phenomenon. The first half of the book covers five causes of status anxiety, beginning with "Lovelessness":
1. 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 well charted, its vagaries for the staple of music and literature, it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second--the story of our quest for love from the world--is a more secret and shameful tale. If mentioned, it tends to be in caustic, mocking terms, as something of interest chiefly to envious or deficient souls, or else the drive for status is interpreted in an economic sense alone. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated, important or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful. There is heartbreak here, too.
2. Adam Smith, The theory of Moral Sentiments (Edinburgh, 1759): "To what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power and pre-eminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest laborer can supply them. What then are the advantages of that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition?
"To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it. The rich man glories in his riches because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world. The poor man on the contrary is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it places him out of sight of mankind. To feel that we are taken no notice of necessarily disappoints the most ardent desires of human nature..."
3. The predominant impulse behind our desire to rise in the social hierarchy may be rooted not so much in the material goods we can accrue or the power we can wield as in the amount of love we stand to receive as a consequence of high status. Money, fame and influence may be valued more as tokens of--and means to--love rather than ends in themselves...
4. William James, The Principles of Psychology (Boston, 1890): "No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met 'cut us dead,' and acted as if we were non-existent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would before long well up in us, from which the cruellest bodily torture would be a relief."
De Botton goes on to discuss four other causes of status anxiety--Expectation, Meritocracy, Snobbery and Dependence--but it's noteworthy that he addresses Lovelessness first. Our drive to succeed and our quest to attain (and maintain) positions of high status are fueled by our need for attention, for recognition, for love. We need to be assured that we matter, to someone.
At a time when we may legitimately wonder how long our wages will be sufficient "to supply the necessities of nature," I don't expect a clearer understanding of status anxiety to alleviate more fundamental economic concerns. But I do find it helpful to distinguish between the two and uncouple them. When we worry about "the economy," to what extent are we truly concerned about our ability to feed, house, and clothe ourselves, and to what extent are we concerned about our status (current and future)? And if we can't do much about the former, what means are at our disposal to address the latter?
In the second half of "Status Anxiety," De Botton explores five ways of relieving status anxiety through Philosophy, Art, Politics, Religion and Bohemia. I don't disagree with any of these strategies, but I also think it's important to strive to be happier in any number of small ways on a daily basis and to insure that our needs for attention, recognition and love are being met by people who truly care about us, rather than by those who take notice primarily of our status.
And I fully agree with de Botton's assertion that "the most profitable way of addressing [status anxiety] may be to attempt to understand and to speak of it." And the first step in that process is acknowledging the status differences that exist--never an easy task in the United States, but particularly at a time when many traditional status markers have disappeared or even inverted. (For example, in many professional settings here in the Bay Area only low-status service people [and a handful of die-hard traditionalists] "dress up." The ability to dress without regard to convention in a professional setting is an assertion of power and a clear status marker. It's also a way for us to collectively pretend that status differences don't exist.)
Some final thoughts from de Botton:
However unpleasant anxieties over status may be, it is difficult to imagine a good life entirely free of them, for the fear of failing and disgracing oneself in the eyes of others is an inevitable consequence of harboring ambitions, of favouring one set of outcomes over another...[of] acknowledging that there is a public distinction between a successful and an unsuccessful life.
Yet if our need for status is a fixed thing, we nevertheless retain all say over where we will fulfill that need. We are at liberty to ensure that our worries about being disgraced will arise principally in relation to an audience whose methods of judgment we both understand and respect. Status anxiety may be defined as problematic only insofar as it is inspired by values that we uphold because we are terrified and preternaturally obedient; because we have been anaesthetized into believing that they are natural, perhaps even God-given; because those around us are in thrall to them; or because we have grown too imaginatively timid to conceive of alternatives.
I'm reminded that as an undergrad I dropped out of Duke to go to art school in Boston and to be closer to a girl who went to Dartmouth, and in the years since then I've quit four jobs--all very rewarding--without knowing what I was going to do next, knowing only that it was time for a change. I was certainly terrified during some of those transitions, but I wasn't obedient or anesthetized.
This winding path hasn't necessarily resulted in success, by some measures, and at my most "imaginatively timid" I can feel like I've failed. But then I ask, failed at what? I've failed "to conform to the ideals of success laid down by [my] society," in some ways, but I sure as hell have succeeded at upholding the values that matter most to me--a commitment to be my authentic self, a passion for growth and renewal, a desire to make positive change in the world. (And I'm still with the girl.)