Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
One Line Summary
Are you finally cool?
High school never ends. We stop struggling to become the popular, cool kids and grow up into adults who struggle to be the popular, cool adults. Gotta have the latest clothing. Gotta have the nice apartment and the socially approved job. Gotta have make sure that make more money than my neighbor.
Why? Well, certainly there’s benefits to pursuing all these goals. But Alain de Botton argues in Status Anxiety that these goals have are not as pure as most people would believe. Much of it comes from a deep anxiety that we don’t have enough social status.
This is compounded by the fact that perhaps now more than ever, social status is within any man’s reach, should he choose to reach out and grab it. In the past, status was largely set from birth. Born a peasant, die a peasant. Born a prince, die a king. This new ability to rise through the ranks of status, while liberating, also creates a tremendous amount of pressure and anxiety.
The book examines status anxiety from the point of view of history, comedy, religion, counterculture and many other perspectives. It’s really incredible how important status is not only to our current society, but society in the past. His conclusions are very interesting and shine light on a really powerful driver of human motivation.
Why it’s Awesome
Status Anxiety does a great job of showing how this issue creeps into many different facets in our everyday life. We’ve all felt it before, the gnawing sensation that maybe we aren’t “good enough”. That if we just acquired that “next thing” or that “next goal” then we’d be able to relax. So this book is supremely practical.
Second, he lays out societal solutions to the problem of status anxiety. These solutions come in the form of art, politics, religion, philosophy and Bohemianism.
For instance, he talks about how comedy has always played a vital role in keeping people from taking themselves too seriously. We mock snobbish, status obsessed people for their vanity. In this way, we are reminded of the absurdity of feeling superior for being of higher status.
In a more cynical interpretation, we could also say that comedy is a way for low status to feel better about their lack of status by laughing at high status people. And while I do agree this happens, that realistically does not make high status the holy grail. It simply prays on an insecurity.
Bohemianism is also a solution I found interesting. Essentially, the people who participated in this moment are the original hipsters. Hipsters before they were cool. By redefining what’s important not by status but by going against the establishment, they are able to reduce status anxiety. It’s a cheap trick, but hey, it gets the job done.
Why Does It Suck
I understand this really wasn’t the point of the book, but a critique I have is that Botton offers not many solutions on the personal level. Its one thing to say that historically religion provided a teaching that said that all men are equal in the eyes of God, but what can someone right now do to help solve this problem? No where is the answer to the question of how to change the root cause of your insecurity.
The reason a real solution can’t be offered is because Botton hasn’t drilled down far enough as to the reason why we have status anxiety. Okay, so we have status anxiety. Why? Because we feel we aren’t loved. Why? Because…no answer.
I’ll specifically address this question in later posts, but the root to this insecurity of status anxiety is actually fear of No-Self. You have anxiety because you feel you won’t be loved, and you feel you won’t be loved because you’re mistaken as to who you actually are. Once you existentially know who you are, there can be no lack of love.
The Wrap Up
Status Anxiety is definitely a great book. Highly recommended for people who feel trapped in the rat race or never ending quest for “more”. And while it’s fascinating to look at this problem of status anxiety from a societal view, there are better books out there in terms of self-development.