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Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Status Anxiety (2002)

by Alain de Botton

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2,048345,407 (3.71)28
Do you worry about how well you're doing? Are you envious of your friends' success? Are you suffering from status anxiety? We all worry about what others think of us. We all long to succeed and fear failure. We all suffer - to a greater or lesser degree, usually privately and with embarrassment - from status anxiety. For the first time, Alain de Botton gives a name to his universal condition and sets out to investigate both its origins and possible solutions. He looks at history, philosophy, economics, art and politics - and reveals the many ingenious ways that great minds have overcome their worries. The result is a book that is not only entertaining and thought-provoking - but genuinely wise and helpful as well.… (more)

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De Botton begins well enough by presenting our desire for “the love of the world” and affirmation from others as a parallel for our desire for sexual love. Incredible material progress since the Industrial Revolution has not led to less, but more anxiety about our status. We don’t envy those who have vastly more—de Botton suggests that hierarchical societies are free from resentment or envy of those higher in the scale. But democratization and increased opportunity means that we ask ourselves, “If anyone can make a fortune, why haven’t I?” William James said that happiness depended on the ratio between our success and our expectations of success. Media growth and advertising keep before our mind what the rich are doing and the number of things we should need or want. The author says that status anxiety is aggravated by uncertainty about jobs and the future, by the snobbery of others, and by a reversal of the ideas that have always been the consolation of the poor (the poor do the world’s work, are not responsible for their poverty, and are more virtuous than the rich, who stole what they have from the poor) with new narratives (it is the rich who create wealth and jobs, your place on the totem pole is a measure of your talent and determination, and therefore of your moral worth).
The consolations that de Botton offers are those of philosophy—stoicism or misanthropy—art, politics, religion, and Bohemianism.
The people that de Botton quotes illustrate, as the Guardian reviewer has pointed out, that there is nothing new in these ideas—when de Botton gets the ideas right; he ascribes to Romans and Greeks an attitude toward slaves that is really that held by American slaveholders toward their African captives, for example.
Alain de Botton had an original idea for a book that plays on the self-help genre when he wrote How Proust Can Change Your Life in 1997. Although it was based on a misunderstanding of Proust—de Botton argues we can learn about love from the book, for example, when in fact Swann and the narrator prove and say again and again that one in love learns nothing but keeps making the same mistakes—nevertheless de Botton had read Proust and was ingenious in suggestions about what might be learned from such a reading. This book, however, seems like a joyless parody of the self-help form. ( )
  michaelm42071 | Jul 14, 2019 |
Generally I enjoyed the entire book, but not surprisingly, some parts grabbed me more than others. What I'm likely to remember the longest is de Botton's explanation for why we've come to associate poverty with moral failure (our belief that the poor are poor because they deserve it and that helping them is rewarding bad behavior). The book is divided into two parts. In the first half, de Botton looks at what he sees as the causes of social anxiety: lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, and dependence. I thought this was the stronger half of the book. He combines historical survey and present-day observation to make his points, all of this in small sections punctuated with many photographs, so that you have plenty of opportunities to stop and think about what he's said.

The second half of the book is devoted to five solutions: philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia. I suspect these are imperfect solutions because (except for bohemia and maybe philosophy) they weren't specifically designed to be solutions: they exist for other reasons entirely and sometimes happen to counter status anxiety as well. As I read on, I was hoping that de Botton would offer suggestions on how to "use" them more effectively, either on a personal level or as a society, but I didn't find much of that. Still, he's written a good introduction to the entire issue, and it's a readable and interesting book. ( )
  Silvernfire | Feb 28, 2015 |
I don't know what I was expecting when I picked this up, a lighter read, I guess. Instead de Botton from philosophical and historical perspectives analyzes the various ways in which humans worry about measuring up by whatever standards and customes of the day and locale. Indeed the main point de Botton makes is how entirely subjective those standards are, shifting with all the fickleness of hemlines, when you get right down to it. Philosophy, Art, Politics, Christianity and Bohemians--each having their own (ever-shifting) slant on what constitutes high status are all examined (Bohemian way of life separated from art as a style of living that tends to produce and attract artists, but a style that only emerged in response to the emerging bourgeois class in the early 1800's). A flaw in the book is that de Botton only seems to consider Christianity -- as 'the' western influence on the problem of status anxiety, although I am sure it plagues other cultures and that other religions seeks to balance and redress and shift the emphasis of just what might define status. He does make an interesting connection between Christianity and the idea of the vanity of permanence, which translated interestingly, for some artists, into an obsession with ruins (including 19th century artists imagining the future ruins of London) -- which made me think of our current mania for dystopic books, for the earth in ruins. Some connection is there, I expect, deserving of more thought than I am likely to give to it, but I will say that a significant number of dystopic books include repressive religious societies. He reminded me how easy it is to forget that politics consists of ideology--and ideology while it pretends to be fixed is anything but. Bohemians offer another way of being in the world, although he points out they tend to gather and associate with one another because it is very difficult to sustain a way of life that goes so against the 'norm' (think Provincetown, Big Sur, etc) Anyhow, it is fairly dry, yes, but also illuminating and thought-provoking. I can't say I had any huge revelations reading it--more affirmation of things I've thought already put in a particular context.
**** ( )
  sibylline | Feb 23, 2015 |
Nothing particularly earth shattering or revelatory here (in fact you're likely to spend your time questioning and challenging quite a lot of the rather bold historical assertions here) - but it's timely philosophy lite for the somewhat bemused. If you're suffering from a vague feeling that things aren't quite what they should be, then this is a good read to make you realise that they were never going to be...
  otterley | Sep 7, 2014 |
An organised book that unpacked many aspects of anxiety from the perspective of causes ( loneliness, snobbery, expectation, meritocracy, dependence. He then looks at solutions . An interesting book that causes the reader to reflect on their own beliefs.
  Annabel1954 | Jul 26, 2014 |
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There are common assumptions about which motives drive us to seek high status; among them, a longing for money, fame and influence.
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