Don’t have high expectations of Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, it is not a self-help book, it doesn’t deliver extraordinary new insights and it doesn’t leave you with a satisfied answer to the question how to deal with the everyday anxiety of our status in society. However, walking on well-trodden paths, Status Anxiety offers a brief summary of what we actually already know and puts it into order and perspective. It is a humble attempt to place a footnote on contemporary success, how we are deceived by our own society. Where Alain de Botton could have focused more is the role of advertisements in modern society and the need of anxiety in society to keep consumer’s buying their fears away.
The book is divided into two parts: causes and solutions. Our problem with status anxiety is with whom we compare ourselves. We need something of reference to position ourselves in a peer group. This reference mostly leads to envy causing anxiety. It is society that has stated that as all men are equal, with equal opportunities, everybody can reach the top. So everybody not at the top must be a ‘loser’ and not an ‘unfortunate person’, envying our peers in their successful endeavours. De Botton states that “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” (p. 63).
So what’s the solution? De Botton gives five pillars of hope: philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia. It seems as if de Botton puts a lot of faith in art, both tragic (humbling) and comic (putting life into perspective and addressing issues difficult to address directly): “the great artists of everyday life may help us to correct a range of snobbish conceptions of what there is to esteem and honour in the world” (p. 153). With Christianity de Botton focuses a lot on the community which has always been present with Christianity, lacking mostly in our ambitious life of a career.
Where de Botton missed an opportunity to draw the topic more into a contemporary view is our commercialised society. Though briefly mentioned at the causes and solutions, “life seems a process of replacing one anxiety with another and substituting one desire for another” which cannot deliver by definition, there is a door wide open for a sixth cause of status anxiety: advertisements. Though it are the peers that cause envy, it are the advertisements that cause a longing in ourselves to buy things we actually don’t need. When we see friends buying things, especially smartphones, tablets and all other new gadgets, we not only grow more envious in wanting to have to next thing, but also anxious of either not able to buy them or nearly unable to buy them.
It will be very interesting to see how an anxious commercialised society is to survive in a world of economic crisis. If our identities become so hooked on our material wealth and we aren’t able to buy (a lot) anymore, we become even more anxious, putting more mental pressure on ourselves: “rather than a tale of greed, the history of luxury could more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma” (p. 28). The cure is to re-evaluate our expectations, find wealth in more than material goods, and depend more on our own instinct what we really want to make of our lives, instead of worrying about what other people may think of us: “the prospect of our own extinction may draw us towards the way of life we value in our hearts” (p. 232).