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Status Anxiety Book Summary – Alain de Botton

What you will learn from reading Status Anxiety:

– The role status plays in society and it’s pitfalls.

– How uncertainty in our own value leads to all sorts of compensation strategies. 

– How meritocracy and equality effect our mental health.

Status Anxiety Book Summary:


What is Status:

StatusOne’s position in society; the word derived from the Latin | statum or standing (past participle of the verb stare, to stand).

In a narrow sense, the word refers to one’s legal or professional standing within a group (married, a lieutenant, etc.). But in the broader and here more relevant – sense, to one’s value and importance in the eyes of the world.

Different societies have awarded status to different groups: hunters, fighters, ancient families, priests, knights, fecund women. Increasingly, since 1776, status in the West (the vague but comprehensible territory under discussion) has been awarded in relation to financial achievement.

The consequences of high status are pleasant. They include resources, freedom, space, comfort, time and, as importantly perhaps, a sense of being cared for and thought valuable conveyed through invitations, flattery, laughter (even when the joke lacks bite), deference and attention.

High status is thought by many (but freely admitted by few) to be one of the finest of earthly goods.


The Pitfalls of Status:

If our position on the ladder is a matter of such concern, it is because our self-conception is so dependent upon what others make of us. Rare individuals aside (Socrates, Jesus), we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel tolerable to ourselves.

More regrettably still, status is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain over a lifetime. Except in societies where it is fixed at birth and our veins flow with noble blood, a high position hangs on what we can achieve; and we may fail due to stupidity or an absence of self-knowledge, macro-economics or malevolence.

And from failure will flow humiliation: a corroding awareness that we have been unable to convince the world of our value and are henceforth condemned to consider the successful with bitterness and ourselves with shame.


Why do we long for Status:

There are common assumptions about which motives drive us to seek high status; among them, a longing for money, fame and influence. Alternatively, it might be more accurate to sum up what we are searching for with a word seldom used in political theory: love.

Once food and shelter have been secured, the predominant impulse behind our desire to succeed in the social hierarchy may lie not so much with the goods we can accrue or the power we can wield, as with the amount of love we stand to receive as a consequence of high status. Money, fame and influence may be valued more as tokens of and as a means to – love rather than as ends in themselves.

Evolutionary survival is based on co operation and our standing.


Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Edinburgh, 1759):

“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? The wages of the meanest labourer can supply them. What then are the advantages of that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition?

To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it. The rich man glories in his riches because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world.”


Ego Metaphor:

Our ‘ego’ or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring the helium of external love to remain inflated and vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect. There is something sobering and absurd in the extent to which we are cheered by attention and damaged by disregard.


Uncertainty in our own Value:

The attentions of others might be said to matter to us principally because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value – as a result of which what others think of us comes to play a determining role in how we are able to view ourselves. Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among. If they are amused by our jokes, we grow confident of our power to amuse.


Behind the belittling:

To try to understand the problem, it is perhaps only ever fear that is to blame. Belittling others is no pastime for those convinced of their own standing. There is terror behind haughtiness. It takes a punishing impression of our own inferiority to leave others feeling that they aren’t good enough for us.


Luxury and Emotional Trauma:

Rather than a tale of greed, the history of luxury could more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma. It is the legacy of those who have felt pressured by the disdain of others to add an extraordinary amount to their bare selves in order to signal that they too may lay a claim to love.


Psychological Poverty:

If poverty is the customary material penalty for low status, then neglect and faraway looks will be the emotional penalties that a snobbish world appears unable to stop imposing on those bereft of the symbols of importance.

These feelings of deprivation may not look so peculiar, however, once we consider the psychology behind the way we decide what is enough. Our sense of an appropriate limit to anything – for example, to wealth and esteem – is never decided independently. It is arrived at by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, with that of people we consider to be our equals. We cannot appreciate what we have in isolation, or judged against the lives of our medieval forebears. We cannot be impressed by how prosperous we are in historical terms.

It is the feeling that we might be something other than what we are – a feeling transmitted by the superior achievements of those we take to be our equals – that generates anxiety and resentment.

It follows that the more people we take to be our equals and compare ourselves to, the more people there will be to envy.


Equality and sensitivity:

In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson explained that his life had been directed towards creating ‘an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, to replace the old aristocracy of privilege and, in many cases, brute stupidity.

When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed …


The effect of expectation on Status:

Democracies, however, had dismantled every barrier to expectation. All members of the community felt themselves theoretically equal, even when they lacked the means to achieve material equality.

A number of fortunes were made by people from humble backgrounds. However, exceptions did not make a rule. America still has a underclass. It was just that, unlike the poor of aristocratic societies, the American poor were no longer able to see their condition as anything other than a betrayal of their expectations.

For James, satisfaction with ourselves does not require us to succeed in every area of endeavour. We are not always humiliated by failing at things; we are humiliated only if we first invest our pride and sense of worth in a given achievement, and then do not reach it. Our goals determine what we will interpret as a triumph and what must count as a failure.

The price we have paid for expecting to be so much more than our ancestors is a perpetual anxiety that we are far from being all we might be.


Redefining Wealth:

Rousseau’s argument hung on a thesis about wealth: that wealth does not involve having many things. It involves having what we long for. Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we seek something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually own.

There are two ways to make people richer, reasoned Rousseau: to give them more money or to restrain their desires.

It is not our prerogative to start to ascribe honour principally on the basis of income. A multitude of outer events and inner characteristics will go into making one man wealthy and another destitute. There are luck and circumstance, illness and fear, accident and late development, good timing and misfortune.


Meritocracy and failure:

In a meritocratic world, where prestigious and well-paid jobs could be secured only on the basis of one’s own intelligence and ability, it now seemed that wealth might be a sound sign of character. The rich were not only wealthier; they might also be plain better.

But there was, inevitably, a darker side to the story for those of low status. If the successful merited their success, it necessarily here followed that the failures had to merit their failure. In a meritocratic a the age, justice appeared to enter into the distribution of poverty as well as wealth. Low status came to seem not merely regrettable, but also deserved.

The great ambition of modern societies has been to institute a comprehensive reversal of the equation, to strip away both inherited privilege and inherited under-privilege in order to make rank dependent on individual achievement – which has primarily come to mean financial achievement.

Status now rarely depends on an unchangeable identity handed down the generations, it hangs on one’s performance within a fast-moving and implacable economy. Because of the nature of this economy, the most evident feature of the struggle to achieve status is uncertainty.

Because achievement in most fields is difficult to monitor reliably, the path to promotion or its opposite can acquire an apparently haphazard connection to results. The successful alpinists of organizational pyramids may not be the best at their jobs, but those who have best mastered a range of dark political arts in which civilized life does not usually offer instruction.

To earn money frequently calls upon virtues of character. To hold down almost any job requires intelligence, energy, forethought and the ability to cooperate with others. Indeed, the more lucrative the job, the greater the merits it may demand. Lawyers and surgeons not only earn higher salaries than street cleaners, their occupations typically involve more sustained effort and skill.


Over Reliance on others:

The reliability of one’s employment depends not only on the politics within organisations, but also on the ability of companies to remain profitable in market places where producers are rarely able to defend their competitive positions or pricing power for long.

Every organisation will attempt to gather raw materials, labour and machinery at the lowest possible price to combine them into a product that can be sold at the highest possible price. From the economic perspective, there are no differences between any of the elements in the input side of the equation. All are commodities which the rational organisation will seek to source cheaply and handle efficiently in the search for profit.

And yet, troublingly, there is one difference between ‘labour’ and other elements which conventional economics does not have a means to represent, or give weight to, but which is nevertheless unavoidably present in the world: the fact that labour feels pain.


Public Opinion and Rigour:

When we begin to scrutinise the opinions of other people, philosophers have long proposed, we stand to make a discovery at once saddening and curiously releasing: that the views of the majority of the population on the majority of subjects are permeated with extraordinary confusion and error. Chamfort, echoing the misanthropic attitude of generations of philosophers before and after him, put the matter simply: ‘Public opinion is the worst of all opinions.’

The reason for this defectiveness of opinion lies in the public’s reluctance to submit its thoughts to the rigours of rational examination and its reliance on intuition, emotion and custom instead.


Choosing Who to listen to:

The approval of others could be said to matter to us for two reasons: materially, because the neglect of the community can bring with it physical discomfort and danger; and psychologically, because it can prove impossible to retain confidence in ourselves once others have ceased to accord us respect.

Only that which is both damning and true should be allowed to shatter our esteem. We should halt the masochistic process whereby we seek the approval of people before we have asked ourselves whether their views deserve to be listened to; the process whereby we seek the love of those for whom we discover, once we study their minds, that we have scant respect.

In Schopenhauer’s words: “Every reproach can hurt only to the extent that it hits the mark. Whoever actually knows that he does not deserve a reproach can and will confidently treat it with contempt.”


Tragic Stories Vs Newspapers:

If a tragic work allows us to experience a degree of concern for others’ failure so much greater than that we ordinarily feel, it is principally because it leads us to plumb the origins of failure. In this context, to know more is necessarily to understand and to forgive more. 

A tragic work leads us artfully through the minuscule, often innocent, steps connecting a hero or heroine’s prosperity to their downfall, and the perverse relationship between intentions and results. In the process we are unlikely to retain for long the indifferent or vengeful tone we might have had recourse to had we merely read the bare bones of a story of failure in a newspaper.

If the newspaper, with its language of perverts and weirdos, failures and losers, lies at one end of the spectrum of understanding, then it is tragedy that lies at the other tragedy embodying an attempt to build bridges between the guilty and the apparently blameless, challenging our ordinary conceptions of responsibility, standing as the most psychologically sophisticated, most respectful account of how a human being may be dishonoured without at the same time forfeiting the right to be heard.

Aristotle’s insight is that the sympathy we feel for the fiascos of others almost always has its origins in a palpable sense of how easily we too might, under certain circumstances, be involved in a calamity like theirs; just as our sympathy diminishes in proportion to the degree in which their actions come to seem as if they lie outside the range of our possibilities.


Humour and Status:

Not only is humour a useful tool with which to attack high-status others, it may also help us to make sense of and moderate our own status anxieties.

Much that we find funny focuses on situations or feelings that in ordinary life we would be liable to encounter with embarrassment or shame. The greatest comics place their fingers on vulnerabilities that we cannot examine in the light of day; they pull us from our lonely relationship with our most awkward sides. The more private and intense the worry, the greater the possibility of laughter, laughter being a tribute to the skill with which the unmentionable has been skewered.

Rather than mocking us for our concern with status, the kindest comics tease us: they criticise us while implying that we remain essentially acceptable. Thanks to their skills, we acknowledge with an open-hearted laugh bitter truths about ourselves that we might have recoiled from in anger or hurt had they been levelled at us in an ordinary, accusatory way.


We don’t know what we want:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Rousseau began by claiming that, however independent-minded we might judge ourselves to be, we are dangerously poor at understanding our own needs. Our souls rarely articulate what they must have in order to be satisfied, or, when they do mumble something, their commands are likely to be misfounded or contradictory. Rather than comparing the mind with a body correct in its sense of what it should consume in order to be healthy, Rousseau invited us to think of it as being more like a body that cries out for wine when it needs water and insists it should be dancing when it should in truth be flat on a bed.

Life seems a process of replacing one anxiety with another and substituting one desire for another should never strive to overcome any anxieties or fulfil any desires, but that we should perhaps build into our strivings an awareness of which is not to say that we the way our goals promise us levels of rest and resolution that they cannot, by definition, deliver.

We are equally prone to misunderstand the attractions of certain careers, because so much of what they entail has been edited out, leaving only highlights it would be impossible not to admire. We read of the results, but not the process.

If we cannot stop envying, it is especially poignant that we should spend so much of our lives envying the wrong things.


Death and Status:

Principally, by removing from us many of the reasons for which society honours its members: for example, the capacity to throw dinner parties, to work effectively and to dispense patronage. In so doing, death reveals the fragility, and so perhaps the worthlessness, of the attentions we stand to gain through status.


The Therapeutic image of Ruin:

Ruins bid us to surrender our strivings and our images of perfection and fulfilment. They remind us that we cannot defy time and that we are the playthings of forces of destruction which can at best be kept at bay but never vanquished. 

We may enjoy local victories, a few years in which we are able to impose a degree of order upon the chaos, but everything is ultimately fated to slop back into a primeval soup. If this prospect has a power to console, it is perhaps because the greater part of our anxieties stems from an exaggerated sense of the importance of our projects and concerns.


Think of others as grown children:

To encourage fellow-feeling, Jesus urged us to learn to look at grown-ups as we might look at children. Few things can more quickly transform our sense of someone’s character than to picture them as a child.


Lessons from Philosophy, Art, Bohemia and Christianity:

They help to lend legitimacy to those who, in every generation, will be unable or unwilling to follow dutifully behind the dominant notions of high status but who may yet deserve to be categorised other than under the brutal epithets of loser or nobody.

They have provided us with a set of persuasive and consoling reminders that there is more than one way – and more than a judge or pharmacist’s way – of succeeding at life.