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Status Anxiety Paperback – May 10, 2005
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Whether it's assessing the class-consciousness of Christianity or the convulsions of consumer capitalism, dueling or home-furnishing, Status Anxiety is infallibly entertaining. And when it examines the virtues of informed misanthropy, art appreciation, or walking a lobster on a leash, it is not only wise but helpful.
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This is a book which must be read attentively in its entirety, and I indeed found it hard to put down, but perhaps I can still highlight some key points to give a feel for the subject matter:
- Because we judge ourselves according to how others judge us, one of our basic needs is the love of the world. This is despite the fact that the judgments of others are frequently shallow and misguided, and the criteria for judgment have varied across cultures and history.
- We take our social status as an indicator of how much we're loved, or can expect to be loved, by others.
- We determine our status by comparison with a reference group of other people, not in absolute terms. That means that progress of our reference group doesn't necessarily improve our individual status, and may even diminish it.
- Unlike the days when status was largely inherited, the meritocratic notion that anyone can achieve anything, and the related assumption of social mobility, gives hope to those who wish to rise in status, but it also results in self-blame when we fail. This is despite the fact that achievement is greatly influenced by factors outside our control (ie, luck).
- Our self-esteem is also affected by our achievement relative to our own expectations. This implies that, if we can't achieve more, it may make sense to lower our expectations (however outlandish that may sound). Likewise, if we're inspired by the success stories of others, but we fail, those stories may worsen our self-esteem. And of course the mass media exacerbates these problems by constantly encouraging us to "aim high" and throwing rags-to-riches success stories in our faces.
- The poor were once honored as an integral and productive part of society, or at least they weren't viewed negatively. This changed with the rise of meritocracy, with material wealth becoming the primary measure of merit/status, and with the poor thus being considered deserving of low status and snobbish derision. Social Darwinism took this attitude further with the view that the poor deserve to be weeded out of society.
- We're often uncertain or mistaken about what will make us happy. For example, the pleasure provided by material acquisitions is usually fleeting, whereas we expected it to be sustained or even permanent. Likewise, in envisioning careers, we often make the mistake of focusing on the positives while downplaying the negatives.
- We can at least partly control status anxiety by learning to become our own judges, being attentive to how art subverts prevailing status norms, seeing our fallible shared humanity through art which depicts tragedy, using comedy to underminine pretensions, remaining aware of our individual and collective mortality, focusing on collective rather than individual success, and orienting ourselves towards nonmaterialistic values which lead to richer and more balanced lives. These are generally difficult things to do, and only partly effective even in combination, but better to make the effort rather than just muddle along with the herd.
I very highly recommend this book, especially to people who detect a tradeoff in their lives between seeking/maintaining status versus being generally fulfilled, and are troubled by that predicament. This book provides an elegantly multifaceted exploration of this terrain, and it's especially rewarding to readers who are themselves erudite enough to be familiar with the diverse spectrum of examples from social and intellectual history which de Botton references. As some reviewers have noted, de Botton could have expanded the book, such as by drawing more on non-Western perspectives, but it makes more sense to attend to what the book offers rather than lament about what it leaves out -- and it offers plenty.
Top international reviews
For me, just understanding the modern manifestation of what is now partly a social-media driven curse helps enormously. Being able to disconnect and easily deal with blatant social status-driven behaviour is simpler and more rewarding.
I would recommend this book