Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

The Book in a Few Sentences

Fantastic inquiry into our desire for status, what it means for our lives and ideas for breaking free. Insightful, articulate and mischievously funny. Alain de Botton is a contemporary among a long line of clever French philosophers.

Status Anxiety summary

This is my book summary of Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. My summary and notes include the key lessons and most important insights from the book.

Part One: Causes

I: Lovelessness

Our Need For Love, Our Desire For Status

  • 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.
  • The attentions of others matter to us because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to how 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.
  • There is something at once sobering and absurd in the extent to which we are lifted by the attention of others and sunk by their disregard.
  • Given the precariousness of our self-image, it should not be surprising that, from an emotional point of view no less than from a material one, we are anxious about the place we occupy in the world.

II: Expectation

Material Progress

  • A host of technological inventions helped to stretch mental horizons even as they altered the patterns of everyday life: the old cyclical view of the world, wherein one expected next year to be much like (and just as bad as) last, gave way to the notion that mankind could progress yearly toward perfection.

Equality, Expectation and Envy

  • Blessed with the riches and possibilities far beyond anything imagined by ancestors who tilled the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe, modern populations have nonetheless shown a remarkable capacity to feel that neither who they are nor what they have is quite enough.
  • In the great political and consumer revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries caused psychological anguish while vastly improving the material lot of mankind, it was because they were founded on a set of extraordinary new ideals, a practical belief in the innate equality of all human beings and in the unlimited power of anyone to achieve anything.
  • [William] James argued that one’s ability to feel satisfied with oneself does not hang on experiencing success in every area of endeavor. We are not always humiliated by failing at things, he suggested; we are humiliated only if we invest our pride and sense of worth in a given aspiration or achievement and then are disappointed in our pursuit of it.
  • Few things rival the torment of the once-famous actor, the fallen politician or, as Tocqueville might have remarked, the unsuccessful American.
  • Rousseau’s argument hung on a radical thesis. Being truly wealthy, he suggested, does not require having many things; rather, it requires having what one longs for. 
  • Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. 
  • Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. 
  • And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually possess.

III: Meritocracy

Three Anxiety-Inducing New Stories about Success

First Story: The Rich Are the Useful Ones, Not the Poor

  • Mandeville posited that, contrary to centuries of economic thinking, it was the rich who in fact contributed the most to society, insofar as their spending provided employment for everyone below them and so helped the weaker to survive.

Second Story: Status Does Have Moral Connotations

  • The new ideology of meritocracy competed with two alternative notions of social organization: the egalitarian principle, calling for absolute equality in the distribution of goods among all members of society; and the hereditary principle, endorsing the automatic transfer of titles and posts (and partridge shoots) from the wealthy to their children.
  • Like aristocrats of old, meritocrats were prepared to tolerate a great deal of inequality, but like radical egalitarians, they favoured (if only for a transitional phase) complete equality of opportunity.
  • If everyone received the same education and had the same chance to enter any career, they argued, subsequent differences in income and prestige would be justified by reference to individuals’ particular talents and weaknesses.
  • Consequently, there would be no need to artificially equalise salaries or assets; hardships would be merited no less than privileges.
  • Faith in an increasingly reliable connection between merit and worldly success in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.
  • When riches were still being handed down the generations according to bloodlines and connections, it was natural to dismiss the notion that wealth was an indicator of any virtue besides that of having been born to the right parents.
  • But in a meritocratic world in which prestigious and well-paid jobs could be secured only through native intelligence and ability, money began to look like a sound signifier of character.
  • The rich were not only wealthier, it seemed; they might also be plain better.
  • But there was also, inevitably, a darker side to the story for those of low status. 
  • If the successful merited their success, it necessarily followed that the failures had to merit their failure.
  • In a meritocratic age, an element of justice appeared to endure into the distribution of poverty no less than that of wealth. 
  • Low status came to seem not merely regrettable but also deserved.

Third Story: The Poor Are Sinful and Corrupt and Owe Their Poverty to Their Own Stupidity

  • To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame.

IV: Snobbery

  • It is easy to recognise the moment when we have entered the orbit of a snob.
  • Early in the encounter, the subject of what we “do” will arise and depending on how we answer, we will either be the recipients of bountiful attention or the catalysts of urgent disgust.
  • The company of the snobbish has the power to enrage and unnerve because we sense how little of who we are deep down—that is, how little of who we are outside of our status—will be able to govern their behavior towards us. 
  • Only as we mature does affection begin to depend on achievement: being polite, succeeding at school and later, acquiring rank and prestige.
  • Such efforts may attract the interest of others, but the underlying emotional craving is not so much to dazzle because of our deeds as to recapture the tenor of the bountiful, indiscriminate petting we received in return for arranging wooden bricks on the kitchen floor, for having a soft plump body and wide trusting eyes.
  • It is perhaps only ever fear that is to blame. 
  • Belittling others is no pastime for those convinced of their own standing. 
  • There is terror behind haughtiness.
  • It takes a punishing impression of our own inferiority to leave others feeling that they aren’t good enough for us.
  • Rather than a tale of greed, the history of luxury could more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma. 
  • It is the legacy of those who have felt pressured by the disdain of others to add an extraordinary amount to their bare selves in order to signal that they too may lay a claim to love.

V: Dependence

Factors of Dependence

  • The great aspiration of modern societies has been the reverse this equation, to strip away both inherited privilege and inherited under-privilege in order to make rank dependent on individual achievement—which has come primarily to mean financial achievement.
  • Status now rarely depends on an unchangeable identity handed down the generations; rather, it hangs on performance in a fast-moving and implacable economy.
  • Anxiety is the handmaiden of contemporary ambition…

Dependence on an Employer

  • Because most businesses are shaped like pyramids, with a wide base of employees giving way to a narrow tip of managers, the question of who will be promoted, and who left behind, typically becomes one of the most oppressive anxieties in the workplace—and one that, like all anxieties, feeds off uncertainty.  
  • The successful alpinists of organisational pyramids may not be the employees who are best at their tasks, but those who have best mastered a range of political skills in which ordinary life does not generally offer instruction.

Dependence on the Global Economy

  • If we are anguished by the thought of failure, it may be because success seems the only dependable incentive for the world to grant us its goodwill.
  • Although the fear of being left penniless is the primary reason for our worry over the instability of our employment, it is not the only reason. 
  • We also worry—and here we return to our earlier theme—because of love, for our work is the chief determinant of the amount of respect and care we will be granted.

Part Two: Solutions

I: Philosophy

Philosophy and Invulnerability

  • Thanks to reason, one’s status could—these thinkers proposed—be fixed through the agency of an intellectual conscience, instead of being abandoned to the whims and emotions of the market square.
  • If rational examination revealed that one had been unfairly treated by the community, one should be no more perturbed by the judgement than by the ranting, say, of a deluded stranger bent on proving that two and two amounted to five.
  • Rather than be seduced by others’ flattery or stung by their insults, Marcus aimed to take his bearings from the person he knew himself to be: “Will any man despise me? Let him see to it. But I will see to it that I may not be found doing or saying anything that deserves to be despised.

Intelligent Misanthropy

  • When we begin to scrutinise the opinions of others, philosophers have long noted, we stand to make a discovery at once saddening and curiously liberating: we will discern that the views of the majority of the population on the majority of subjects are perforated with extraordinary confusion and error.
  • Dispensing advice from their isolated studies, philosophers have recommended that we follow the internal markers of our conscience rather than any external signs of approval or condemnation.
  • What matters is not what we seem to be to a random group, but what we ourselves know we are. 

II: Art

Introduction

  • Surreptitiously and beguilingly, then, with humour or gravity, works of art—novels, poems, plays, paintings or films—can function as vehicles to explain our condition to us. 
  • They may act as guides to a Truer, more judicious, more intelligent understanding of the world.

Art and Snobbery

  • The best novels expand and extend our sympathies.
  • Paintings, too, can challenge society’s normal understanding of who or what matters.

Tragedy

  • Aristotle’s great insight was that the degree of sympathy we will feel regarding another’s fiasco is directly proportional to how easy or difficult it is for us to imagine ourselves, under like circumstances, making a similar mistake.
  • Because we each bear within ourselves the whole of the human condition, in its worst and best aspects, any one of us might be capable of doing anything at all, or nothing, under the right—or rather the most horribly wrong—conditions.

Comedy

  • Beyond being a useful weapon with which to attack the high-status of others, humour may also help us to make sense of, and perhaps even mitigate, our own status anxieties.
  • The greatest comics shine a spotlight on vulnerabilities that the rest of us are all too eager to leave in the shadow; they pull us out of our lonely relationship with our most awkward sides.
  • The more private the flawed the more intense the worry about it, the greater the possibility of laughter—laughter being, in the end, a tribute to the skill with which the unmentionable has been skewered.
  • Comedy reassures us that there are others in the world no less envious or socially fragile than ourselves; that other fellow spirits wake up in the early hours feeling every bit as tormented by their financial performance as we do by our own; and that beneath the sober appearance of society demands of us, most of us are daily going a little bit out of our minds, which in itself should give us cause to hold out a hand to our comparably tortured neighbours.
  • Rather than mocking us for being so concerned with status, the kindest comics tease us: they criticise us while simultaneously implying that our basic selves are essentially acceptable.  
  • If they are both acute and tactful enough, we may acknowledge with an openhearted laugh bitter truths about ourselves from which we might have recoiled in anger or hurt had they been leveled at us in an ordinary—which is to say, accusatory—way.

III: Politics

  • What are the principles according to which status is distributed?
  • At least four answers suggest themselves.
  • The members of a group may acquire status by threatening to harm others physically, thus bullying a population into offering its respect.
  • Alternatively, certain people may win status through their ability to defend others, whether by strength, by patronage or through control of food, water and other staples.

A Political Perspective on Modern Status Anxiety

  • Because societies are in practise trusted to be “meritocratic,” financial achievements are necessarily understood to be “deserved.”
  • The ability to accumulate wealth is prized as proof of the presence of at least four cardinal virtues: creativity, courage, intelligence and stamina.
  • A multitude of external events and internal characteristics will go into making one person wealthy and another destitute, among them luck and circumstance, illness and fear, accident and late development, good timing and misfortune.
  • A dispassionate audit of our successes and failures should leave us feeling that there are reasons to be at once less proud of and less embarrassed about ourselves, for a thought-provoking percentage of what happens to us is not of our own doing.
  • Rousseau’s Discourse goes on to sketch the history of the world not as a story of progress from barbarism to the great workshops and cities of Europe, but as one of regress, from a privileged state in which we humans lived simply but were aware of our own needs to a state in which we are apt to feel envy for ways of life that can claim little connection to our true selves.
  • In technologically backward pre-history, in Rousseau’s “natural state,” when people lived in forests and had never entered a shop or read a newspaper, men and women alike better understood themselves and so were drawn towards the more essential features of a happy life: love of family, respect for nature, awe at the beauty of the universe, curiosity about others and a taste for music and humble entertainments.
  • The quickest way to stop noticing something may be to buy it—just as the quickest way to stop appreciating someone may be to marry him or her.
  • We are tempted to believe that certain achievements and possessions will give us enduring satisfaction. 
  • We are invited to imagine ourselves scaling the steep cliff face of happiness in order to reach a wide, high plateau on which we will live out the rest of our lives; we are not reminded that soon after gaining the summit, we will be called down again into fresh lowlands of anxiety and desire.
  • Life seems to be a process of replacing one anxiety with another and substituting one desire for another—which is not to say that we should never strive to overcome any of our anxieties or fulfil any of our desires, but rather to suggest that we should perhaps build into our strivings an awareness of the way our goals promise us a respite and a resolution that they cannot, by definition, deliver.
  • The advertisement stays quiet, too, about the relative inability of any material thing to alter our level of happiness, as compared with the overwhelming power of emotional events.
  • The most elegant and accomplished of vehicles cannot give a fraction of the satisfaction we derive from a good relationship, just as it cannot be of any comfort whatsoever to us following a domestic argument or abandonment.
  • At such moments, we may even come to resent the car’s impassive efficiency, the punctilious clicking of its indicators and the methodical calculations of its onboard computer.
  • If we cannot stop envying, it seems especially poignant that we should be constrained to spend so much of our lives envying the wrong things.

IV: Religion

Death

  • Whatever we may make of the particularly Christian solution that Tolstoy adopted to his crisis of meaning, his sceptical journey follows a familiar trajectory. It is an example of how the thought of death may serve as a guide to a more genuine and more significant way of life.
  • Typically, the thought of death may be expected, first, to usher us towards whatever happens to matter most to us (be it drinking beside the banks of the Nile, writing a book or making a fortune), and second, to encourage us to pay less attention to the verdict of others—who will not, after all, be doing the dying for us.
  • Whatever other differences there may be between them, Christian and secular concepts overlap substantially on the subject of what is meaningful in life when viewed from the perspective of death. 
  • There is a strikingly similar positive emphasis on love, authentic social relations and charity, a common condemnation of the pursuit of power, military strength, wealth and glory.
  • However forgotten and ignored we are, however powerful and revered others may be, we can take comfort in the thought that the lot of us will ultimately end up as the most democratic of substances: dust.
  • We may enjoy local victories, perhaps claim a few years in which we are able to impose a degree of order upon the chaos, but ultimately all will slop back into a primeval soup. 
  • If this prospect has the power to console us, it is perhaps the greater part of our anxieties stems from an exaggerated sense of the importance of our own projects and concerns.
  • We are tortured by our ideals and by a punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing.
  • In summary, we may best overcome a feeling of unimportance not by making ourselves more important but by recognizing the relative importance of everyone on earth. 

Community

  • Christianity bids us to look beyond our superficial differences in order to focus on what it considers to be a set of universal truths, on which a sense of community and kinship may be built.
  • Beneath our flaws, there are always two driving forces: fear and the desire for love.
  • To encourage fellow feeling, Jesus urged his followers to learn to look at other adults as they might at children.
  • Few things can more quickly transform our sense of a person’s character than picturing him or her as a child…
  • Nothing could be nobler, or more fully human, than to perceive that we are indeed fundamentally, in every way that really matters, just like everyone else.
  • The desire for high status is never stronger than in situations where “ordinary” life fails to answer a median need for dignity and comfort.

Twin Cities

  • In a world where secular buildings whisper to us relentlessly of the importance of earthly power, the cathedrals that punctuate the skylines of great towns and cities may continue to furnish an imaginative holding space for the priorities of the spirit.

V: Bohemia

  • …so keen have many Bohemians been to place spiritual concern at the forefront of their lives that their indifference to practical affairs has become nearly obsessional.
  • This has on occasion had the paradoxical effect of reducing their existence to an all-consuming struggle merely to survive—leaving them with less time to contemplate matters of the spirit and a greater need to consider problems of the body than ever the busiest or most materialistic judge or pharmacist.
  • To sum up its significance in the broadest, most comprehensive terms, one might simply suggest that bohemia has legitimized the pursuit of an alternative way of life. 
  • It has staked out and defined a subculture in which values that have been consistently underrated or overlooked by the bourgeois mainstream…
  • Like Christianity’s monasteries and nunneries, bohemia’s garrets, cafés, low-rent districts and cooperative businesses have provided a refuge where that part of the population which is uninterested in pursuing the bourgeoisie’s rewards—money, possessions, status—may find sustenance and fellowship.
  • To the role-models of the lawyer, the entrepreneur and the scientist, bohemia has added those of the poet, the traveller and the essayist.
  • 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 harbouring ambitions, of favouring one set of outcomes over another and of having regard for individuals besides oneself.
  • Status anxiety is the price we pay for acknowledging that there is a public distinction between a successful and an unsuccessful life.
  • 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 anesthetized 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.
Thanks for reading.  If you're a curious person, you can get more insights like these in my email newsletter. Each week, I share practical ideas on personal freedom and living your authentic Self. What do you have to lose?
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.