Status anxiety is “the price we pay for acknowledging that there is a public distinction between a successful and an unsuccesful life.” In this book, de Botton explores our social lives from the perspective of status, and arrives at a remarkably comprehensive account of human society, that is erudite as it is entertaining. Essentially, the book is a story of our love affair with society: “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first—the story of our quest for sexual love—is well known and well charted, its vagaries form the staple of music and literature, it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second—the story of our quest for love from the world—is a more secret and shameful tale.”
The book points out how important status is for our balloon-like ego that suffers from every ‘pinprick of neglect’. In our current meritocracy, failure is not attributed to bad luck, but it is our own fault. Falling short of our expectations results in a culture of anxiety penetrating all aspects of life, from the economy to politics to art and religion. De Botton discusses these themes systematically in this essay, that reminds me of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. The first five chapters discuss the causes of status anxiety (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, and dependence) whereas the second half offers solutions (philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia). De Botton’s erudition is enjoyable, albeit – oh sweet irony – anxiety-inducing for writers who have similar ambitions.
Our postmodern age has produced a modest literature criticizing mindless consumerism, and De Botton’s book is a welcome addition to it. As somebody who strongly dislikes conspicuous consumption, I enjoyed the reference to the broader idea of ‘bohemia’ and Thoreau (“man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without”).
This is a dense book, that I would recommend a second read.