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

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.

You propose gaining an understanding of the causes of desire for status as a way to curb it. Do you see that as the only way? I've noticed an increasing sense of serenity and perspective coming over my peers in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Could we be looking at a valley in the otherwise seemingly ever-upward-trending graph of status anxiety's progress? Could trauma be a solution?

Anything that restores perspective can be helpful. And by perspective I mean something that takes you away from the here and now of modern life, in which we're constantly surrounded by images of who's up and who's down. Now, that might be something as grim as the thought of death. 9/11, as we know, has been a giant memento mori hanging over the U.S. and the world: a reminder that death can find us very suddenly at any moment. That's a challenge to our workaday sense of needing to get on. People who have had a close brush with death tend to say that their priorities have been altered. What the neighbors think, and where you are on the ladder of life shifts in relevance. That's why the Christian moralists have traditionally stressed death as an agent that contributes positively to Judeo-Christian values. But of course it's very hard to keep the possibility of death constantly in the front of your mind, particularly when there are big corporations heavily invested in trying to get us to buy a new car, or go on holiday. They don't ask us to think about the grave nature of life. That kind of reminder tends to come from literature and art, and often has a hard time getting heard amid the clamor of all the media-driven messages.

You suggest that the rise of meritocracy has trained us to see the rich as deserving of their fortunes rather than as sinful or corrupt. But, speaking for myself, in the wake of Enron and Martha Stewart, and given the state of modern government, I definitely consider more rich people than ever to be cheaters. I kind of always have.

Presented by

Adam Baer is a writer in New York. He has covered books for The New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, and, among other publications. His most recent interview was with David Bezmozgis.

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