Choice and anxiety in modern society
Alain de Botton expands on the concept of status anxiety:
Why do we work as hard we do? The obvious, respectable answer is that we work for money. We spend weekends at the office, criss-cross the land and answer emails late into the night because we simply have no choice in the matter. We have to pay mortgages, feed children and house spouses.
But there's another, somewhat less respectable answer to this question, which shifts the focus away from what our achievements are able to do for others towards what they might be doing for us. In this analysis, much of the reason why we work so hard is not truly connected to a desire for money or mortgages, but rather is related to a fierce, secret and usually unmentioned desire for status.
The word status, deriving from the Latin statum or standing, refers in a narrow sense to one's legal or professional standing within a group (married, a lieutenant, etc.). But in the broader - and here more relevant - sense, to one's value and importance in the eyes of the world.
Those holding important positions in society are typically described as 'somebodies' and their inverse as 'nobodies.' Literally, the terms are nonsensical, for everyone who is alive is of necessity an individual with an identity and as much claim on existence as another.
But such words are cruelly apt in conveying what in reality happens to people without status: few wish to know where they live or the number of children they have, few listen to their jokes or deal respectfully with their enquiries. They are treated brusquely by estate agents and attendants in smart shops. They become shadowy generic figures: the waitress at the party, the man sweeping the hall, the dustman at work outside.
Validation by others
There is a crucial psychological reason why we need status: how we feel about ourselves depends to an awkwardly large degree on how others feel about us. The world's approval promotes self-acceptance, its condemnation self-hatred. We need others to like us in order that we may like ourselves. Such malleability seems a strange, regrettable quirk of our make-up. Ideally, what someone thought of me would not affect what I thought of me. If I had carried out an an honest appraisal of my character and concluded that I was intelligent, another person's suggestion of my idiocy would be of no great import. But only a few characters in history have managed to maintain such an unwavering attitude towards themselves in the face of the suspicions of others. Socrates and Jesus come to mind.
Most of us cannot manage their steeliness. We have within us a greater range of options about the kind of people we are. There may be evidence of cleverness, but there are other possibilities besides. There is also stupidity and sentimentality. Some mornings, there is nastiness and paranoia too. And on a bad day, we are wholly absurd, a cosmic mistake, and it would be best if we were quickly and quietly thrown into a bin. If the neglect of others is so devastating, it is because it grips like a barnacle to latent negative feelings we already hold about ourselves.
However, a declining mood may be reversed if others smile at us, if they compliment us on a piece of work or report a flattering comment made in passing by a third party. The love of others can highlight the best of the many available verdicts about who we are and dim the bad ones. It shores up a happy story about our identity.
There is nothing wrong about working to achieve high status - yet the feeling there might be tends to lead to a certain degree of self-deception about why we work hard. The modern economy is powered in large part by a touchingly simple desire for honour and respect.
Another, related paradox of modern life is how societies that are richer than ever before could have failed so dismally at the business of being happier than ever before.
How can we have so much, yet still feel so lacking?
A possible answer lies in the psychology behind the way we decide what is enough. Our sense of an appropriate limit to status and wealth is never decided independently. It is decided by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, with that of people we consider to be our equals. We cannot appreciate what we have in isolation, nor judged against the lives of our medieval forbearers. We cannot be impressed by how prosperous we are in historical terms. We will only take ourselves to be fortunate when we have as much as, or more than, the people we grow up with, work alongside, have as friends and identify with in the public realm.
In so far as the modern world has created anguish for its citizens, it is because of an extraordinary new ideal (found in almost every newspaper, magazine and TV programme one cares to look at) around which it is founded: a practical belief in the unlimited power of anyone to achieve anything.
For most of history, an opposite assumption had held sway: low expectations had been viewed as both normal and wise. Only a very few had ever aspired to wealth and fulfilment. The majority knew well enough that they were condemned to exploitation and resignation.
The rigid hierarchical system that had held in place in almost every Western society until the eighteenth century, and had denied all hope of social movement except in rare cases, was unjust in a thousand all too obvious ways, but it offered those on the lowest rungs one notable freedom: the freedom not to have to take the achievements of quite so many people in society as reference points - and so find themselves severely wanting in status and importance as a result.
It was a freedom because of course, it remains highly unlikely that one will ever reach the pinnacle of society. It is perhaps as unlikely that we could today become as successful as Bill Gates as that we could in the seventeenth century have become as powerful as Louis XIV. Unfortunately though, it no longer feels unlikely - depending on the magazines one reads, it can in fact seem absurd that one hasn't already managed to find a business idea to revolutionise global trade.
With expectation comes disappointment
It was Alexis de Tocqueville who first and best understood that societies which promise much to their citizens will also torture them with expectations. Travelling around the young United States in the 1830s, the French lawyer and historian discerned that Americans were, quite literally, dying of envy. They had much, but this affluence did not stop them from wanting ever more and from suffering whenever they saw someone else with assets they lacked. In a chapter of Democracy in America (1835) entitled 'Why the Americans are Often so Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity', he observed, 'In America, a land of so-called equals, I never met a citizen too poor to cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich'.
A firm belief in the necessary misery of life was for centuries one of mankind's most important assets, a bulwark against bitterness, one cruelly undermined by the expectations incubated by the modern world-view.
A solution to spiralling desires and expectations perhaps lies in the recognition that wealth does not involve having many things. It involves having what we long for. Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we seek 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 own.
There are two ways to make people richer: to give them more money or to restrain their desires. Modern societies have succeeded spectacularly at the first option but, by continuously inflaming appetites, they have at same time helped to negate a share of their most impressive achievements.
The most effective way to feel wealthy and of high status may not be to try to make more money. It can be to distance ourselves - practically and emotionally - from anyone whom we both consider to be our equal and who has become richer than we.
Rather than trying to become bigger fish, we should concentrate
our energies on gathering around us smaller companions next to whom
our own size will not trouble us.
The price we have paid for expecting to be so much more than our ancestors is the permanent feeling that we are far from being all we might be.
Alain de Botton is the author of Status Anxiety, published by Penguin.