Alain de Botton diagnoses our obsession with being thought the most successful of them all
By Alain de Botton
Pantheon, 306 pp., illustrated, $24
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 in this genre of literary self-help, a field he's created all on his own in the past decade. In comparison to its predecessors, ''Status Anxiety" is an economical, superbly organized, and yet oddly impersonal book. The word ''I" appears but a handful of times, and de Botton gives us precious few details about his own life or struggles with status anxiety. Instead, he borrows from the novels of Jane Austen and the works of Adam Smith to make his points clear.
Too much first-person narration would encourage readers to think about who is delivering this message, which might lead them to realize that de Botton is a best-selling author and a man of significant means. How much status anxiety, one might ask, can he truly suffer from?
The question is moot, though, since as de Botton shows, even the most privileged among us wrestle with status anxiety. Furthermore, de Botton's strength is not the reworking of his own experience but how he packages and explains art and culture to the masses. In the book's second half, called ''Solutions," de Botton acts like one of those paid guides who whisk crowds through a museum. He points our attention from one artist to the next, and then drags us off into the world of politics, up to religion, and back down into bohemia, all to show that status anxiety is entirely manageable if we immerse ourselves in culture, which forces us to think and create for ourselves.
Perhaps the most interesting of these solutions is the idea of bohemia. Around the beginning of the 19th century, de Botton notes, a group of people began gaining notice for how easily they shucked off conventional values. Instead of status, they valued originality and creativity first. Sadly, what de Botton fails to mention is that bohemia has all but disappeared. Greenwich Village is overrun with chain stores, and Montmartre is a tourist destination. One could say neighborhoods change, but one could also argue that more people have felt the pinch of status anxiety. It is all the more reason that one hopes this lively and wise little book becomes a sign of literary status: a bestseller.
John Freeman is a writer in New York.