Interviews June 2004

The Status-tician

Why do the successes of our peers drive us crazy? Alain de Botton, the author of Status Anxiety, explains

Obviously some people are more attuned to these hidden communiqués…

Yes, and those who are least attuned to it have a sort of blithe self-confidence. It might be the work of an early, very supportive upbringing in which a parent might say to his or her child, "You're a champ!" And that can have the side-effect of making someone incredibly insensitive or unaware of themselves.

And maybe happier?

Yes, another branch of the "blunt-but-happy" thing. But most of us, I think, are really quite sensitive and have a hard time being confident without signs of approval. Most people feel bad about spending time alone and grow increasingly paranoid and depressed the longer they have to be by themselves. That's because we seek outside stimulation and reminders of our self-worth.

The Industrial Revolution and the middle class it spawned are identified in the book as two main accelerators of status anxiety. In hindsight, could we have avoided the onset of this problem and still progressed as a society, economically and technologically?

Probably not. When you think of a productive economy you're thinking of an anxious economy. You're looking at many, many people who are afraid about hanging on to their places. You can either lead a simple life—the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent farmer with his simple log cabin. Or you can lead a city life. It's your choice. I guess a Marxist would say that in the ideal future we would have a noble feudal community and high technology at the same time. But on the whole I think it's perceived as a choice. Productivity and GNP are linked to the anxieties of many, many individual workers. An economy like that of France—a so-called "unproductive economy"—is in a way a more relaxed economy. Any given country will be successful at some things and unsuccessful at others. France may be somewhat unsuccessful economically, but it's successful in its long lunch break. There's that choice.

Why have modern populations proved to be so incapable of feeling content with what they have and how they're viewed by so-called "reference groups," the communities that they feel close to?

I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of what's normal—of what is an acceptable standard of everyday living. And of course the bar keeps being raised ever higher in modern society. Look at advertising: its sole function is to make us feel that certain things are missing from our lives. So today it's possible for someone to feel poor if they don't have air-conditioning or a flat-screen TV in a way that they wouldn't have fifty or even ten years ago. Our sense of what it is to be reasonably well-off keeps changing, keeps rising—even though all of us are much better off than people were hundreds of years ago. But no one compares themselves to someone who lived three-hundred years ago or to someone in sub-Saharan Africa. We take our points of reference from those around us: our friends, our family. These are the people who determine our feelings of success. Which is why Rousseau wrote that the best way to become rich is not by trying to make more money, but by separating yourself from anyone around you who has had the bad taste to become more successful than you. It's a facetious point, but it's also a serious one. Feelings of wealth are relative.

Look at the self-help section of American bookshops, where my books are occasionally found. There are basically two kinds of books on those shelves: the first kind are the ones that say, "You can make it, you can be anything you like, you can be a billionaire by Friday." Then there's the other kind that tells you how to cope with feelings of low self-esteem—how to be a friend to yourself. This is the modern United States: a society that tells everyone they can be extraordinary. That creates feelings of shame among those who don't feel extraordinary. I think it's interesting that in England three-hundred years ago, people at the bottom of society were called "unfortunates." Interesting word, "unfortunates." Nowadays they're called "losers." That tells us a lot about how things have changed.

Is democracy a cause of status anxiety in and of itself? You quote Tocqueville as saying that "when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed."

I know from my own life that the people I envy are the people who are quite close to me in some way: I envy men, and men my age, more than women my age. I envy British people more than American people. You know, anything that brings you closer. I envy people I was in university with most of all. Anything that gives you a feeling of "I'm like this person." Well, if I'm like this person, then why do they have something I don't have? Tocqueville's point—and it was a very salient one—is that you have a society that's constantly telling people, We're all the same, we're all Americans, we're all equal. When actually there's a lot of inequality around, which fosters feelings of envy. If society said The rich are their own species, they have been made into Gods, don't ever aspire to be one of them, well, in one sense that would be unfair and stupid and untrue. But it would have a relaxing effect; if they're creatures from outer space, well then what's the point of comparing our condition with theirs? Whereas nowadays the whole temper of the media atmosphere makes success seem very ordinary. J.Lo could be your friend. You know what she's like, you know what her love life is like. You know everything about people who in previous centuries you would have known very little about. So it's much easier to compare our condition to theirs, and to find our condition wanting by comparison.

Bill Gates wears jeans. You wear jeans. You almost have to kick yourself to remember that this guy runs the largest corporation on earth even though he looks just like you. I think it's as unlikely today for a person to become as rich as Bill Gates as it was unlikely in the seventeenth century for someone to become as rich as Louis the XIV. The key thing is that today it doesn't feel that unlikely. You're made to feel that since you have a few bright ideas about technology, you, too, could found the next Microsoft. This pervasive sense of possibility creates a feeling of restlessness. And there's that lovely Tocqueville chapter called "Why Are the Americans So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity?" That could almost be the title of Status Anxiety, or at least the subtitle.

You posit five solutions for status anxiety—Philosophy, Art, Politics, Religion, and Bohemia, because they help put things in perspective. Can science help too?

Science can be used in many different ways. Broadly defined, it's a discipline that leads to a better understanding of phenomena, and insofar as we can better understand something like status anxiety, we are, to some extent, defended against its wilder attacks. Evolutionary biology is often associated with the concept of status anxiety today. And it's true that we're hardwired to be concerned with status. But—and this is a huge "but"—the question of who gets high status, and for doing what, is actually a flexible, political, historical point that keeps on changing. Nazi Germany had a status system. Modern Germany has a different status system. In both those societies people have to accomplish certain goals in order to receive high status. The recognition that status anxiety is to some extent evolutionarily biological is not the end of the conversation. It's just the beginning. But too often the conversation closes down at that point.

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Adam Baer is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and Slate, on NPR, and elsewhere.

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