Synopses & Reviews
“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. . . . The second—the story of our quest for love from the world—is a more secret and shameful tale. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first.”
This is a book about an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us, about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. This is a book about status anxiety.
Alain de Botton, best-selling author of The Consolations of Philosophy and The Art of Travel, asks—with lucidity and charm—where our worries about status come from and what, if anything, we can do to surmount them. With the help of philosophers, artists and writers, he examines the origins of status anxiety (ranging from the consequences of the French Revolution to our secret dismay at the success of our friends) before revealing ingenious ways in which people have been able to overcome their worries in the search for happiness. We learn about sandal-less philosophers and topless bohemians, about the benefits of putting skulls on our sideboards, and about looking at ancient ruins.
The result is a book that isn’t just highly entertaining and thought-provoking, but that is genuinely wise and helpful, too.
"A novelist...cleverly deconstructs and demystifies that sinking feeling of material inferiority....An intelligent breath of fresh air, sans the usual ax-grinding." Kirkus Reviews
"For de Botton, the reason for engaging in philosophy is not to know more but to live better to gain a sense of proportion about life's little ironies and acquire thereby a certain immunity from the rage and passion that dance attendance on them. This is philosophy in the manner of Montaigne or Thomas Browne rather than Descartes or John Locke: a gentle stoicism reminding us that when things do not pan out as we would like, it may be better to amend our desires than to try changing the world." Jonathan Rée, The Times Literary Supplement (read the entire Times Literary Supplement review)
"In his new book, Alain de Botton does a fine thing: He harnesses his erudite take on self-help to the problem of fear and sorrow aroused in modern people by their relative position in society. He takes a seemingly unwieldy concept, gives it a name ('Status Anxiety'), treats it with a smattering of classic philosophy and art, and produces a book which is meant to enlighten as well as improve its readers." Anna Godbersen, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
There are few more powerful wishes than to be seen as a success, a figure worthy of dignity and respect, and few deeper fears than to be dismissed as a failure. We long for status and dread its opposite. Alain de Botton with characteristic originality, lucidity, and elan addresses the anxieties that seem inextricably embedded in our pursuit of status and explores what, if anything, we can do about them.
Dipping into history, psychology, politics, and economics, de Botton considers a wide range of causes for status anxiety and an equally wide range of methods by which people have coped with their fears: through philosophy, art, religion, and bohemia. In his hallmark style, the author shows us how status instruction and solace can be found in some unusual places: in everything from fruit baskets to etiquette books, magazine recipe pages to office politics, comics to the communal experience of inspirational music.
Thought-provoking, wise, and eminently entertaining, Status Anxiety highlights de Botton's genius for finding the most unusual approach to the most unexpected but universal of subjects.
With characteristic originality, lucidity, and elan, de Botton addresses the anxieties that seem inextricably embedded in our pursuit of success and status, and explores what, if anything, we can do about them.
About the Author
Alain de Botton is the author of three previous works of fiction and three of nonfiction, including The Art of Travel, The Consolations of Philosophy, and How Proust Can Change Your Life (all available in paperback from Vintage Books). He lives in London.
Read an exclusive essay by Alain de Botton
What is status anxiety?
Status anxiety is a worry about our standing in the world, whether we're going up or down, whether we're winners or losers. We care about our status for a simple reason: because most people tend to be nice to us according to the amount of status we have if they hear we've been promoted, there'll be a little more energy in their smile, if we are sacked, they'll pretend not to have seen us. Ultimately, we worry about having no status because we're not good at remaining confident about ourselves if other people don't seem to like or respect us very much. Our "ego" or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring external love to remain inflated and vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect: we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel acceptable to ourselves.
When does status anxiety kick in presumably basic sustenance needs have to be fulfilled first?
While it would be unusual to be status anxious in a famine, history shows that as soon as societies go any way beyond basic subsistence, status anxieties quickly kick in. In the modern world, status anxiety starts when we compare our achievements with those of other people we consider to be our equals. We might worry about our status when we come across an enthusiastic newspaper profile of an acquaintance (it can destroy the morning), when a close friend reveals a piece of what they naively or plain sadistically call "good" news (they have been promoted, they are getting married, they have reached the bestseller list) or when we are asked what we "do" at a party by someone with a firm handshake who has recently floated their own start-up company.
Is status anxiety at its height in the early 21st century and why is that?
Status anxiety is certainly worse than ever, because the possibilities for achievement (sexual, financial, professional) seem to be greater than ever. There are so many more things we expect if we're not to judge ourselves "losers." We are constantly surrounded by stories of people who have made it. For most of history, an opposite assumption held sway: low expectations were viewed as both normal and wise. Only a very few ever aspired to wealth and fulfilment. The majority knew well enough that they were condemned to exploitation and resignation. Of course, it remains highly unlikely that we will today ever reach the pinnacle of society. It is perhaps as unlikely that we could rival the success of Bill Gates as that we could in the seventeenth century have become as powerful as Louis XIV. Unfortunately though, it no longer feels unlikely depending on the magazines one reads, it can in fact seem absurd that one hasn't already managed to have it all.
Could David Beckham, for example, suffer from status anxiety?
Of course he does because he compares himself to his own peer group. We all do this, and that's why we end up feeling we lack things even though we're so much better off than people ever were in the past. It's not that we're especially ungrateful, it's just we don't judge ourselves in relation to people far away. We cannot be cheered for long by how prosperous we are in historical or geographical terms. We will only take ourselves to be fortunate when we have as much as, or more than, the people we grow up with, work alongside, have as friends and identify with in the public realm. That's why the best way to feel successful is to choose friends who are just that little bit less successful than you...
What solutions are there to get us to stop worrying so much about status?
Think about death. It's the best way to stop worrying so much about what others make of you. To discover whose friendship you should really care about, ask yourself who among your acquaintances would make it to your hospital bedside. If need be, look at a skeleton: what others think about you will soon start to lose its intimidating power.