Having often quoted (and once preached) from Alain de Botton’s book – Status Anxiety – I am finally getting around to reading it right through.
It is an amusing and insightful comment on the debilitating effects of comparison. De Botton takes a journey through the historical, philosophical and psychological causes and consequences of covetousness – noting, as the title suggests, that we yearn for status as much as material wealth (although of course the two are often closely linked.) His description of the condition is witty and disturbingly accurate:
Status Anxiety is a worry…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. … Like confessing to envy (to which the emotion is related), it can be socially imprudent to reveal the extent of any anxiety and, therefore, evidence of the inner drama is uncommon, limited usually to a preoccupied gaze, a brittle smile or an over-extended pause after news of another’s achievement.
Having described the condition, de Botton traces the development of Western culture’s preoccupation with comparison and the dissatisfaction that it produces. And interestingly, one of the principle catalysts he identifies is equality – or rather, the promise of it – that egalitarian democracies hold out. His observation is best summed up by this quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835), from a chapter entitled “Why the Americans are Often so Restless in the Midst of their Prosperity”:
“When all the prerogatives of birth and fortune have been abolished, when every profession is open to everyone, an ambitious man may think it is easy to launch himself on a great career and feel that he has been called to no common destiny. But this is a delusion which experience quickly corrects. When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed. … That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance…”
Neither de Tocqueville or de Botton would suggest a return to the deficiencies and deprivations of aristocratic societies, but they both acknowledge that at least the ‘have-not’s back then were spared the anguish of shattered expectations. The latter notes the former’s observation of the different attitudes among the serving classes:
“In aristocracies, servants often accepted their fates with good grace; they could have…’high thoughts, strong pride and self respect.’ In democracies, however, the atmosphere of the press and public opinion relentlessly suggested to servants that they could reach the pinnacles of society… As time passed and the majority failed to raise themselves…their mood darkened, bitterness took hold…and their hatred of themselves and their masters grew fierce.”
It is an interesting thought – that democracy, while definitely increasing the wealth of societies who embrace it, may also produce in its citizens greater feelings of discontent. That the objectively richer feel subjectively poorer.
Such is the danger of comparison. Such is the state of the human heart.
De Botton’s prescription for status anxiety sounds relatively simple. First, acknowledge the problem – “the most profitable way of addressing the condition may be to attempt to understand and to speak of it.” And second, try managing the level of our expectations and desire, rather than the level of our fame and fortune – “we may be happy with little when we have come to expect little.”
Of course, this is easier said than done. And as Christians we know that it is impossible to do on our own. Most of us have a long way to go before we could honestly say, with the apostle Paul in Phil 4:12-13 – I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.