Adam Baer in The Atlantic Monthly, June 2004
Why do the successes of our peers drive us crazy? Alain de Botton, the author of Status Anxiety, explains.
In 1997, Alain de Botton, a twenty-eight-year-old Swiss-born Londoner with a Cambridge degree and three hit novels on the shelves, took it upon himself to teach a broad, thinking, audience to benefit from Marcel Proust's most enlightened virtues - without having to spend a year lugging around the seven dense volumes that make up In Search of Lost Time. He penned How Proust Can Change Your Life, a slim, elegant work of nonfiction, dotted with droll illustrations and charts, and dedicated to offering tips for better living gleaned from Proust's life and work. The book not only sold countless copies around the globe; it also earned high praise for demystifying some of the most challenging passages in Western literature in an insightful and idiosyncratically humorous way.
Since then, de Botton, who has not only written relationship columns for British newspapers, but also briefly directed a branch of London University's graduate philosophy program, has expanded his oeuvre with two more nonfiction books, both similarly predicated on the idea that we can look to the great writers for counsel on improving our lives. The Consolations of Philosophy, which was published in 2000, is a compendium of practical advice culled from the writings of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and other renowned philosophers. And The Art of Travel, which was published in 2002, is a collection of more personal essays that delves into writings by the likes of Wordsworth and Flaubert to probe the reasons why we holiday.
In his new book, Status Anxiety, de Botton takes readers on a tour through the history of ideas—economic, sociological, and political - to tackle the problem of "status anxiety," which he characterizes as "a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one."
This obsession with our place in society, de Botton writes, emerges from several sources: our fear of lovelessness; inflated expectations about what our lives should bring; our faith in meritocracy (which leads us to believe that modern day academic achievement sorts everyone into their rightful place), snobbery; and the fact that we are at the mercy of "fickle talent," luck, our employers, and the global economy. But status anxiety, he argues, can be cured—or at least mitigated—if we draw upon the resources of philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia as tools for putting the issue in perspective. For example, we can curb our urge to grasp after bigger, more impressive things and learn to appreciate our mundane lives, he argues, by exposing ourselves to art and literature that celebrates the beauty and dignity of the ordinary. Likewise, an understanding of the ideals that drive Western religion can help us relinquish our fixation on worldly success. And we could do worse, he suggests, than to heed the observations of astute social critics like the eighteenth-century French commentator Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort, who warned, "public opinion is the worst of all."
On June 15 I met up with de Botton, in the midst of his book tour, in a New York City hotel. Over breakfast we discussed these issues, along with such questions as how, say, a survivor of status anxiety might respond to mean-spirited book reviews. His overarching message: remain humble and down