Status Anxiety — Alain de Botton on Ego and Our Place in Society

Status Anxiety — Alain de Botton

“To what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power and pre-eminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature?”

Adam Smith. (1759). The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Hamiltonian Duels

The practice may seem absurd today, but duels were once a long standing tradition for men around the world. They would square off, usually one on one, first with swords and later with pistols, to protect their honor. As the philosopher Alain de Botton observes, “so dependent was [the man’s] self-image on the views of others that he would sooner die of a bullet or stab wound than allow unfavorable assessments of him to go unanswered.”

Duels to the death continued even into the nineteenth century. One particular duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, for example, saw then Vice President Aaron Burr end the illustrious life of the first and former American Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Neither man believed that words were enough to resolve their discord and pride.

While duels are no longer common place, we continue to worry about how our family, friends, colleagues and contemporaries perceive and portray us. Some will spend much of their waking lives cultivating themselves for the eyes of others. Perhaps this is why every bedroom and bathroom in the modern world includes a mirror or two. All of us, to varying degrees, are concerned with our image and place among others.

“Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgments of those we live among.”

Alain de Botton. (2004). Status Anxiety.

Status anxiety

Our obsession with honor, prestige, reputation, beauty, and whatnot, are elements of a broader phenomena that Botton calls status anxiety. It is a common but unspoken worry that “we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect.”

This discontent arises in part because our judgment is not absolute but relative. Most of us are devoid of fixed and permanent goals. Instead, we compare our standings to the characteristics and opinions of some arbitrary reference group, usually consisting of people whom we deem comparable. Indeed, despite the manifold rise in economic prosperity, even the wealthy continue to feel that they do not have enough.

“It is not a great disproportion between ourselves and others which produces envy, but on the contrary, a proximity.”

David Hume. (1739). A Treatise on Human Nature.

Ego and balloons

Here, de Botton compares our ego to a “leaking balloon”. One that is in constant need of inflation. It follows that those who rely on external validation to feed their sense of self may grow especially anxious when things do not go their way. He notes, likewise, that if our self-esteem depends on our success relative to our expectations, then we can improve our esteem by succeeding more or by wanting less.

In fact, the denizens of premodern societies probably lived along the lines of the latter. Before democratization, industrialization, scientific enlightenment, and other paradigm shifts, society did not possess the institutions necessary for social mobility. The times and opportunities of antiquity moved at a glacial pace by modern standards. That’s not to say, however, that they were free from status anxiety, only that their aspirations and expectations were radically different to that of ours today.

Another source of anxiety, perhaps, as de Botton argues, may come from the “erosion of faith” in an afterlife. Those who fervently believe that an eternity in heaven or nirvana awaits them may find the disappointments and hardships of their life on Earth more bearable. De Botton wonders whether those who dismiss such notions today feel a greater need to live a memorable life—that they must achieve something commendable or worthwhile before their time inevitably expires.

Snobs make snobs

Status anxiety may help to explain aspects of social behavior. If you spend enough time in the lunchroom of any organization, you are sure to detect some amount of snobbery. Many atheists and monotheists, for instance, are fond of belittling one another, each believing that their position is superior. Similar distinctions arise between working classes and political leanings. Perhaps you have come across the professional who loves to mock academics for their impenetrable, if not extraneous studies; or the academic who deems those without a doctorate to be intellectually inferior.

As de Botton explains, “there is terror behind haughtiness. It takes a punishing impression of our own inferiority to leave others feeling that they are not good enough.” Every snob is simply trying to elevate his or her own sense of self through subtle condescension. Yet the result is collectively reinforcing. Snobbery begets snobbery when everybody is trying to assert his or her self worth, de Botton notes. It requires true self-assurance to rise above this feedback loop. “Belittling others”, he reminds, “is no pastime for those convinced of their own standing.”

Indeed, there is a permanent psychological and economic incentive among the so-called elite to believe and have others believe that the successful are always deserving of success—that hard work and talent always prevails. Many entrepreneurs, executives, and gurus today routinely espouse aphorisms like “winners make their own luck”. Their faith in economic meritocracy and karmic justice ignore the histories and contingencies that give rise to chance and opportunity. Such proclamations, de Botton notes, would have “puzzled” the ancient Romans who prayed to Fortuna—the Roman goddess of luck.

Malleable esteems

Perhaps Karl Marx was right when he observed that “the ruling ideas of every age have [always] been the ideas of its ruling class.” It seems prudent then to consider whether the desires, aspirations, and expectations we hold are the ones we want to abide by.

This is easier said than done, of course. Our ideology and social conditioning, de Botton notes, is like “a colorless odorless gas”. No matter how much we disapprove of status or hierarchy, it appears to be a persistent feature of social organization. One outdated model is simply replaced by another. Brahmins and shudras, slaves and slave masters, nobles and peasants, bourgeois and proletarians, new money and old money. The assortment of hierarchies and social structures are endless.

But this also reminds us that status, rank, and values ​​are malleable. De Botton points, for example, to the Spartans of Ancient Greece in 400 BC; to the saints and clergymen of Western Europe in 500 AD; to the gentlemen and industrialists of England in 1840; and to entrepreneurs of modern times that seem to generate cult-like attention wherever they go. Those who are held in high esteem in one era may lose their appeal and purpose in another. They bend and shift with the tides of society.

Death and cosmos

So is there anything we can do to ease the envy and status anxiety that reside inside us? The problem appears pervasive as long as we continue to base our esteem on relative possessions and standings. We cannot all enjoy above-average wealth or prestige. That is a fact by definition. Moreover, we should recognize, de Botton notes, that “life seems to be a process of replacing one anxiety with another and substituting one desire for another.” The entrepreneur who spends years making her first million in sales will suddenly desire to make two, then four, then ten, and so on. De Botton is not suggesting, however, that we forget our ambitions. He is simply reminding us that we beware the social hands that drive our motives, and that we channel our goals and behavior with greater personal agency.

It may also be worthwhile to reframe our desires and choices against the vantage point of death. I’m told that few people on their deathbed wish that they had spent more time at the office. Dan Levy and Richard Zeckhauser proffer a similar maxim for analytical thinking—that we make decisions on the basis of regret elimination. Perhaps things like family, travel, or learning rank more highly on your life agenda. It may also help, de Botton adds, to frame our lives against the backdrop of nature and the cosmos: “There are natural phenomena so enormous as to make the variations between any two people seem mockingly tiny… We may best overcome a feeling of unimportance not by making ourselves more important but by recognizing the relative lack of importance of everyone on earth.”

The bare necessities

In the end, our anxieties may be ineradicable. We can only hope to manage it. After all, we are social creatures in a social world. Any endeavor we pursue must be connected to someone else in some way. So anything we do will surely attract the judgment and prejudices of others. But as Epictetus wrote nearly two millennia ago, “it is not my place in society that makes me well off, but my judgments, and these I can carry with me.” For my two cents, I cannot help but feel that the answer to status anxiety lies in part in the 1967 Walt Disney film The Jungle Book, when Baloo the Bear sings to Mowgli the man cub about the ‘Just Necessities’ of life:

Look for the bare necessities

The simple bare necessities

Forget about your worries and your strife



And don't spend your time lookin' around

For something you want that can't be found"

When you find out you can live without it

And go along not thinkin' about it

I'll tell you something true

The bare necessities of life will come to you

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