John Freeman in The Boston Globe, 6th June 2004
Alain de Botton diagnoses our obsession with being thought the most successful of them all
America is the richest country in the history of mankind. In contrast to the developing world, a vast majority of our citizens have televisions and telephones, roofs over our heads, and toilets that flush. Food is fresh and plentiful, water abundant, and we pay a fraction of what Europeans do for gasoline. Even the very poorest among our population have access to technologies considered luxuries the world round. So why are we so unhappy? Why do we nurse a persistent grudge of want?
In his latest book, ''Status Anxiety," Alain de Botton argues that along with the rest of the Western world, Americans are in the throes of an epidemic of status anxiety. By his definition, that is not merely a craving for material goods and respect from peers; at its core, status anxiety represents a desire for love. ''To be shown love is to feel ourselves the object of concern: our presence is noted, our name is registered, our views are listened to, our failings are treated with indulgence and our needs are ministered to," writes de Botton. ''And under such care, we flourish." From this description, it sounds as if we all just need some mothering.
Perhaps, but status anxiety goes back to more than just nostalgia for the womb, as de Botton shows throughout this brisk little read. Thanks to the American Revolution, he argues, the Western world now operates under the assumption -- however false -- that we live in a meritocracy. The lowliest page boy can aspire to billions, as can a doctor happily bringing in a six-figure salary. The result is a society of people forever measuring themselves against one another and those above them. And the richer we become, the more we need to feel loved.
It sounds like an incredibly reductive argument, but as de Botton zigzags through history collecting examples and illustrating points, his reasoning acquires an elegant simplicity. In the 17th century, status anxiety was dangerous sport as hundreds of thousands of men died dueling over honor. Over the years, it became less dangerous to seek status since the culture -- at least in theory -- accepted that everyone could have it. In the 20th century, a self-help boom exploded in America with gurus like Anthony Robbins exhorting Americans to be all they could be. The implied assumption behind Robbins's success is that most Americans felt they wanted more out of life.
Two forces make it even harder now to accept our status: snobbery and dependence. As de Botton reveals, more people than ever work for large corporations. As a result, our jobs and fortunes depend a great deal on the decisions of people above us. To protect ourselves from this truth, we develop snobbery -- looking down at the people below us and flattering those above us. It's a sickening cycle, and one need only attend a dinner party to witness it.
So what can one do to break it? As in his previous books ''The Consolations of Philosophy" and ''The Art of Travel," de Botton directs us away from Lexus dealerships and toward libraries and museums. Yes, art and literature can save us from the creeping suspicion that we just aren't good enough. Why? For one thing, de Botton argues, art exists to criticize life. If we embrace the arts' underlying message -- that the world isn't fair and people are fallible -- we'll learn how to care less about what the world tells us about ourselves. We'll begin looking inward and discover what we truly care about, and chances are, status will not be among those criteria.
This is de Botton's fourth book