Fifteen Years Later, Alain de Botton’s ‘Status Anxiety’ Is More Relevant Than Ever

The Swiss philosopher didn’t actually write about social media, but he might as well have.
January 20, 2019
10 mins read

Being born in the late ’90s, I have lived through technological and cultural advancements that my parents could never have imagined just a few decades ago. As a child living through the innovations of the 21st century, I did not realize the gravity of their effect on the ongoing human experience, nor did I necessarily care. While social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were planting their feet in our lives during the mid-to-late aughts, my main concerns were baseball and Cartoon Network.

Therefore, I would have never predicted the way these social media juggernauts would drastically affect my life, as well as society as a whole. Indeed, because of them and the constant reminders they provide of others’ lifestyles and levels of importance, the general level of anxiety regarding status, achievement and success has spiked in recent years.

British philosopher and author Alain de Botton published a book, called “Status Anxiety,” in 2004, and it explores the definitions, interrelationship, causes and solutions for modern “status” and “anxiety.” However, its publication was followed by the creation of YouTube, massive advancements with the internet and the iPhone, all three of which are now large parts of humans’ daily lives, as well as the causes of even more anxiety. Therefore, there has never been a better time to crack open Botton’s work, as many of the concerns it addresses have become even more apparent since ’04.

Botton begins by positing that high status is an undervalued resource in modern life, detailing its benefits. “They include resources, freedom, comfort, time and, as importantly perhaps, a sense of being cared for and thought valuable,” he writes. “High status is thought by many (but freely admitted by few) to be one of the finest of earthly goods.”

The author goes on to explain the term that constitutes his book’s title, “Status Anxiety.” “[It is a] worry so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives,” Botton writes, “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; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.”

The way Botton articulates the suffering of this condition reflects the sour sting these kinds of thoughts leave in a person and how long their pain can linger. Because social media allows people to constantly compare and contrast themselves with others, conversations about status anxiety need to occur now more than ever.

In his book, though, Botton points out the benefits of this burgeoning status anxiety. “The hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system.”

However, he recognizes the evils that can come from the pursuit of status. “Like all appetites,” Botton warns, “its excesses can also kill.” Following this thesis, he begins his book, which he splits into two parts: “Causes” and “Solutions.”

In order to explain the evolution of human civilization and culture, the author bounces around the globe and throughout history, illustrating how certain changes have contributed to our species’ growing anxiety. His references range, among others, from Napoleon to Machiavelli and Walt Whitman to Edgar Allen Poe.

For example, in one of my favorite references, he examines an episode from Richard Nixon’s stint as vice president in July 1959. Nixon had traveled to Moscow in order to unveil to the Soviets a replica of the “average” home for members of America’s working class. In what was a thinly veiled promotion of Western capitalism, Nixon boasted of the material luxuries that were commonplace in America. “Americans had purchased 56 million television sets and 143 million radios,” Nixon recounted, a fact made especially stark given the income of his audience, who often didn’t have a household teakettle, let alone a private bathroom.

Nixon didn’t lie about the materialistic advancement of Western society, but he failed to mention one of its chief failings: the “rise in levels of concern about importance, achievement and income” that would arise as gadgets like these became ubiquitous.

Using historical references like these, Botton is able to illustrate the relationship between material goods and anxiety. Much of his findings are especially applicable to modern day, as the rate of technological innovation has only increased since then; as a result, the inability to “keep up” in the mercantile economy can now even elicit emotions of shame and embarrassment.

Exacerbating all of this is social media. For instance, on Instagram many celebrities will post pictures of their luxury cars, beautiful vacations and expensive jewelry, all of which sends the not-so-subliminal message that material gain leads to happiness. And yes, before you point out that ads have existed for centuries, consider how social media has shifted the PR paradigm.

Never before have people gone out of their way to “follow” brands and voluntarily opt into their ad campaigns. Why do you change the channel when a commercial comes on, but follow Moon Pie on Twitter? While Botton doesn’t address that phenomenon directly — it didn’t exist, after all, in 2004 — his answer is not hard to intuit. Status, in one way or another, is the driving force behind capitalism.

So, what is there to be done? Botton offers several solutions. In his “Art” section, the author includes several awe-inspiring illustrations from artists who painted everyday moments, such as men preparing a sailboat or the rooftop view of a small colonial town. He uses these simple works of art to make a profound point. “Great artists of everyday life may help us correct our snobbish preconceptions regarding what there is to esteem and honour in the world,” he writes.

People see a glimpse of the materialistic lifestyle and fixate on it, while they pass by moments of beauty every day. Why do we clamor for what seems distant and offers so little, while ignoring the benefits of what is available?

Botton makes another terrific point using Switzerland’s tram-network as an example. In Switzerland’s largest city, Zürich, the tram network is “clean, safe, warm and edifying in its punctuality and technical prowess.” As a result, “The need to own a car in order to avoid sharing a bus or train with strangers losses some of the urgency it has in Los Angeles or London.” Botton takes the point further, illustrating how a failure to provide the ordinary with adequate options, such as a well- maintained transportation system, creates a negative connotation of “ordinary” itself.

As Botton puts it, “As we can recover a sense of the preciousness of every human being and, even more important, legislate for spaces and manners that embody such a reverence in their makeup, then the notice of the ordinary will shed its darker associations, and, correspondingly, the desires to triumph and to be insulated will weaken, to the psychological benefit of all.”

In addition to the examples I’ve referenced, Botton makes a number of other salient points, many of which find fresh applicability in 2019. “Status Anxiety” provides a sobering analysis of how the intersection of self, technology and status will always find new, complex ways to interrelate.

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