Alain de Botton: Status Anxiety Review

In Status Anxiety, writer, presenter and philosopher Alain de Botton in his examination of the human striving for happiness examines perhaps the greatest impediment to its achievement – concern about how we are perceived by other people. For many people, happiness means being successful in our lives and endeavours, but success is relative and is usually measured in comparison to others like us. If the people around us, our equals, have the appearance of greater wealth – the principal outward measurement of success – then our perceptions of our own value and success is likely to suffer. Divided into three parts, de Botton looks at the causes and manifestations of status anxiety and looks for solutions.

Part 1: Causes
To try and determine the causes of status anxiety, Alain de Botton travels to America, to see how a meritocratic society works, when everyone is supposed have equality of rights and opportunity. Drawing heavily on the 1831 work by Alexis de Toqueville, “Democracy in America” and under the assumption that “their anxieties are destined to become our anxieties”, de Botton observes that, unlike the feudal, class society of de Toqueville’s Europe, where everyone knew their place within their social milieu, in American society where class has been abolished, the slightest perception of inequality is brought all the more starkly into focus. Not only however is the distinction between rich and poor more evident - when everyone is perceived to have the equal opportunities to succeed - failure is regarded as laziness and weakness. Anyone who works hard will succeed.

Returning to the common thread that lies behind much of his work, de Botton then goes on to question whether those who succeed and achieve the riches they desire are happier in proportion to the wealth they accumulate. Evidently they are not – but the question remains why not? And if not, is there another way, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed, in returning to a simpler way of life, that of the “noble savage”? And where does Christianity’s promise of rewards in the afterlife fit into all this?

In the first part, de Botton chooses well in selecting America and examining a society where status anxiety is endemic, finding the root causes and putting them to a number of philosophical and social contexts. Most crucially, he chooses his interview subjects well, questioning preachers, bums, aspirational businessmen and right-wing fundamentalists, giving each of them an equal say, allowing extreme and valid viewpoints to be aired, without ever going for the cheap shot or attempting to undermine the interviewee with his own cleverness.

Part 2: Manifestations
In the second part of the programme, de Botton looks at how the inequalities shown in the previous episode lead to the anxieties that affect our everyday lives. Observing how people in low-paid jobs are treated with less respect than company executives, he notes how status determines the attention we are given, as are the clothes we wear, the house we live in and the car we drive. The outward display of such status symbols is clearly an indictor to the amount of money you have and the amount of respect you therefore feel you should consequently be accorded. Self-esteem is therefore very much dependent upon the approval and judgement of others, and failure to stand out from our peers often gives rise to feelings of anxiety and unhappiness. However, does consumption and the acquiring of designer goods and status symbols really give us the happiness we seek, or just debt and an increasing need to maintain a lifestyle constantly beyond our reach?

Again, de Botton takes a historical outlook on the matter, referencing William James’ view on the desire for status being a search for love, not just from a partner, but from the world. He compares the custom of duelling to the modern equivalent of the celebrity lawsuit, seeking to maintain ones respectability and status in the eyes of the world. Returning to America, he compares Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the perfectibility of every person into a self-made hero and how wealth and happiness are attainable by everyone, to George Orwell’s belief in a true socialist meritocracy, where the working class are more deserving of rewards than the classes of privilege.

Part 3: Solutions
Having identified the causes and manifestations of status anxiety, de Botton goes on to ask whether these ideals of society’s attitude towards the rich and privileged can be overturned. He explains that there is a history of overturning what Karl Marx identified as “ideologies” – ideas that seem to be true and immutable, but are in fact lies. These lies, once dictated by the ruling classes and religion to maintain the status quo, are now disseminated in our modern society by the power of the press, telling us what we should buy, how we can be popular, and mercilessly pouncing on failure. He takes the case of John Ruskin, an opponent of Victorian values, who challenged the desire for the accumulation of wealth and achieved real political changes. Looking at other examples of people who live alternative lifestyles – the Bloomsbury Group, naturists, bohemians and hippies – he shows that living according to your own values and not those dictated by conventional attitudes has given us all the independence and freedoms we have today to make our own choices.

De Botton’s proposals for how we can achieve a simpler, anxiety-free life – citing Marcus Aurelius, Schopenhauer, Dutch Art and a “stimulating” meditation on Death - are perhaps a little esoteric and far removed from popular positive affirmations of self-help books, but consistent with the views expressed in The Art of Travel – it’s all a matter of attitude and putting one’s life into perspective. However, like The Art of Travel, de Botton also lightens proceedings with nice touches of humour, without ever talking down or cheapening the material. To gauge the power of the media to make people feel inadequate and society’s view of failure, for example, he visits the Daily Sport office and gets them to write headlines for famous mythological and literary social transgressors, Madame Bovary, Othello and Oedipus (“Sex With Mum Was Blinding!”). It effectively proves his point in a familiar and humorous way.

Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety and The Art of Travel are released under Revolver Entertainment’s Cultura label which presents popular and accessible programming on arts and culture. Like their earlier releases of Picasso: The Full Story and Vincent: The Full Story, these programmes have been previously broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK, so the quality generally reflects TV broadcast quality. Status Anxiety however is presented, unusually for a television programme, letterboxed at a ratio of about 1:56:1. The picture quality however is more or less flawless as you would expect a television broadcast programme to be, but obviously the recording on video will never have the kind of quality of 35mm film. The audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, is also quite clear throughout. The only flaw in the presentation is that again, the DVD, like the other Cultura titles, is lacking any subtitles, which is a bad flaw in an academic work. This ought to have footnotes or at the very least English hard of hearing subtitles, to allow references to be examined and followed-up. An insert in the case however, at least breaks the chapters down in to sections and includes the definitions of Status Anxiety. There are no extra features, but the documentary is apparently expanded by 40 minutes from its television form.

In Status Anxiety Alain de Botton examines a serious issue that everyone will instantly recognise without having previously considered just how much it affects our daily lives and social behaviour. In a clear and accessible way he makes us aware of the causes of our feelings of social inadequacy and our need to conform to conventional modes of behaviour in order to gain the approval and shows that this is not just a modern phenomenon, but one that has historically been successfully challenged and resisted. There are lessons for everyone here, and de Botton presents them in a consistently fascinating, clear, authoritative and humorous way, without compromising the serious nature of the subject. Better than merely reading it in a book and absorbing the information presented unquestioningly, presented as a documentary this can and should be watched with friends and family to create a true dialectic discussion of the ideas put forward. With an additional worthwhile 40 minutes of extra material to bolster the arguments, this is good value and a good quality DVD release.

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