Our topic this month is about an almost universal anxiety: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we're judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. 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.
We will also be looking at the concomitant rise of the phenomenon of snobbery whereby we look down on those 'below' us as well looking enviously at those alongside and above us.
The advantages of two thousand years of Western civilization are familiar enough: an extraordinary increase in wealth, in food supply, in scientific knowledge, in consumer goods, in physical security, in life expectancy and economic opportunity. What is perhaps less apparent is the way that such impressive material advances have gone hand in hand with a rise in levels of status anxiety among ordinary Western citizens, ie, a rise in levels of concern about importance, achievement, income and how we appear in others' eyes.
A sharp decline in actual deprivation has been accompanied by an increased sense of deprivation and a fear of it. Populations blessed with riches and possibilities far outstripping those imaginable by their ancestors tilling the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe have shown a remarkable capacity to feel that both who they are and what they have are not enough.
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 in a vacuum. It is decided by comparing our condition with that of those people close to us that we consider to be our equals. We cannot appreciate what we have in isolation, nor judged against the lives of our medieval forbearers. We cannot be impressed by how prosperous we are in historical terms. We will only take ourselves to be fortunate when we have as much as, or more than, our friends and colleagues.
If we are made to live in a dirty and draughty cottage and bend to the harsh rule of an aristocrat in command of a large and well-heated castle, and yet we observe that all our equals live as we do, then our condition will seem normal; regrettable, certainly, but not grounds for envy. If we have a pleasant home and comfortable job, however, but learn through attendance at a school reunion that some of our old friends are now living in houses larger than our own, bought on the proceeds of high-status occupations, we are likely to return home nursing a sense of misfortune and envy.
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. If we are small and live among people who are all of own height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size. But if others in our group grow a little taller, we are liable to feel sudden unease and fall into dissatisfaction and envy -- even though we have not ourselves diminished in size by even a millimetre.
Our discussion takes as its starting point Alain de Botton's 2004 book Status Anxiety. In the book de Botton discusses the desire of people in many modern societies to "climb the social ladder" and the anxieties that result from a focus on how one is perceived by others. De Botton claims that chronic anxiety about status is an inevitable side effect of any democratic, egalitarian society.
de Botton argues that the causes of status anxiety are :
...and the solutions are:
You can watch the film of the book on-line