‘Status Anxiety’ by Alain de Botton (2004)

Are you a loser at the game of life?

I suspect I probably am and if employing the most common quantifiers used in the post-industrial world (those of money and social standing), I definitely am, but reading this book made me feel much happier at this diagnosis.  Even a little proud.

I am writing this ‘essay’ in the first person, as how I feel about this book is rather personal.  I really enjoy de Botton’s books and their accessibility.  I don’t think I ever would have thought to pick up Schopenhauer or Heraclitus but I did pick up this book (and those of other popular modern philosophers) and the narrative filter it provides for the work of the likes of Schopenhauer or Heraclitus is now something I couldn’t live without.

Startlingly, I got a fair way in to my twenties without any real solid beliefs, at least of the kind I could explain to another person.  I consequently (genuinely) believed I was the only person I knew who had the – to this point – unnamed feelings and thoughts that I did.  I don’t mean that I considered myself in any way superior to my peers, quite the opposite, I was just a little on the outside and being used to it, didn’t really think about it beyond that.  In the same way that if you grow up believing dogs say ‘wan wan’ you just assume it to be a universal truth.  My MA tutor advised me to study for a DPhil, but even then I didn’t really grasp what prompted him to say this, or even what a DPhil really was.  Now I can see that my natural interests suggest it, but I didn’t understand that at the time.  I’m glad though that the penny did eventually drop.

My early twenties were dominated by a particularly difficult relationship and in a roundabout way I have this relationship to thank for finally introducing me to philosophy.  During a visit home to my parents in an attempt to escape and distract myself from the consumptions of obsession, I was casting around for something to read, anything to read and happened upon a short book from a range of 24 called Predictions, in which academics and writers attempted to forecast the next 50 years across a range of subjects.  The copy I read was by A. C. Grayling and was called The Future of Moral Values.  It was an epiphany for me, the realisation of  ‘THAT’S why I feel like that’, it finally had a name and what’s more, precedence: I wasn’t alone.  From that point I was able to form some kind of narrative for my own life, which amongst many other more important things, allowed me to free myself from that sad relationship.

From the Grayling piece on morals I tried to read Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World but got unstuck by its (for me) strange mixture of text-book and novel.  However, I read enough to know I wanted to know more, just from another source.  Happily, I came upon another A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things and it was from this point I began to turn to philosophy for advice and guidance, as I still do.  I pick up The Meaning of Things, or a more recent addition to my collection, Thinking of Answers and scan down the lists of ‘foes and fallacies’ or ‘virtues and vices’  to find the nearest approximation to what I’m feeling or experiencing and look for advice there.

This brings me to Alain de Botton.  The first book of his I read was The Art of Travel and I again had the feeling of ‘I thought I was the only person who did that’.  I really thought no-one loved wandering around supermarkets whilst on holiday like I did, or got an inordinate thrill when gazing at the unfamiliar sugar packet on the side of a coffee cup.  Since then I have been a fan, but until a friend gave me this copy, I had yet to read Status Anxiety, his most famous book.

I must have been bought up in a particular way which fortunately means I’m not particularly susceptible to status anxiety.  By which I mean, not to a crippling degree, as we all are susceptible to it which is why this book is so affecting.  Before the book begins de Botton defines ‘status’ and ‘status anxiety’, then going on to state the central claims of the book, the first being, ‘that status anxiety possesses an exceptional capacity to inspire sorrow.’  The first section addresses why it has this power and lists the causes as; lovelessness, snobbery, expectation, meritocracy and dependence. The second section posits solutions, quoting: philosophy, art, politics, christianity and bohemia.

There were many aspects of the book which resonated with me, particularly the exploration of the idea – popular in the mid-19th Century – that having money naturally equated to a higher morality and therefore provided both financial and spiritual superiority.  This school of thought paved the way for the later Capitalist idea that money equals happiness.  De Botton claims that the belief that money makes you happy rests on three assumptions.  Firstly, that it is easy to identify what makes us happy, secondly that the wealth of opportunity and consumer goods available to us provides choice and opportunity and isn’t just an unecessary and overly-proliferate shopping experience and finally that the more we own, the more happiness we experience.  These assumptions are made harder to defy when:

‘Our souls rarely articulate what they must have in order to be satisfied, or, when they do they mumble something, their commands are likely to be misfounded or contradictory.’

And the fact that,

‘Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and can distract us from the careful, arduous task of correctly tracing our priorities.’

As an example of how money and possessions do not necessarily guarantee happiness, de Botton details the effect of the promotion of European trade in North America on the existing communities there, an account I found very moving:

‘Reports of American Indian society drawn up in the sixteenth century had described it as materially simple, but psychologically rewarding … the Indians were certainly backward in a financial sense … but there was reputed to be an impressive level of contentment.’

However, after the arrival of European traders all this began to change and by 1759 rates of suicide and alcoholism had risen massively, communities were fractured and squabbling over European goods was widespread:

‘The Indians, no different in their psychological make-up from other humans succumbed to the easy lures of the trinkets of modern civilisation and ceased listening to the quiet voices that spoke of the modest pleasures of the community and of the beauty of the empty canyons at dark.’

Amongst many of the solutions de Botton offers to counter status anxiety, the final chapter suggests one examines the beliefs of the bohemian (standing as a secular choice after the preceding chapter on Christianity).  Bohemia demanded that the ‘primary repository of feeling’, that of art, be placed above worldly possessions.  The associated belief system valued the sensitivities of writing, painting, music and the devotion of oneself to travel, or to friends and family and believed, as Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden – his account of a year spent living remotely without possessions: ‘Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.’

I sincerely believe this to be a good starting point on which to base a world-view.  However, as de Botton writes, the most mature way to look at status anxiety is not as one value system versus another, but to take a balanced view: that where we draw our inspiration is up to us, it doesn’t have to be one way or no-way, we are free to choose our role models, whether they be, ‘the lawyer, the entrepreneur and the scientist … [or] the poet, the traveller and the essayist.’  He also argues that to a certain extent, status anxiety is the natural consequence of ambition, which in itself is no bad thing.

For me, what I have taken from this book is a strengthening of those faint whispers of the soul that tell me what I need to be happy, so if asked now if I am a loser at the game of life and I am content to say ‘yes’.

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