Review: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked up this book. The cover suggested a light, humorous take on consumerist society – an indictment of the whole keeping up with the Jones’ mentality. In fact, it’s a rather scholarly analysis of modern happiness that was much more intelligent than I bargained for and leaves the reader with plenty to mull over.

Status Anxiety starts off rather dry, but picks up once it begins delving into theories on class and society – think Marx and the like. Feudal society probably sounds awful to you or I – peasants toiling in the fields, medieval landlords lording it over their servants. But he argues that everyone was in fact kinder to one another back then (perhaps as there was virtually no hope of ever escaping your “place”, so those higher up the ladder didn’t feel threatened), and that most people were actually content. It’s a fascinating concept. Everyone knew their place in a hierarchical, class based system, but at the same time, were valued for the role they played.

Were we really happier before the dawn of capitalism?

Now anyone can theoretically become anything they want, but failure is like a moral condemnation. And most of us will fail at something at some point. Some failures (failing to lose that last 1.5kg) are no big deal, while others (failing to get a promotion) sting – and they’re much more visible. Our accomplishments, or lack thereof, are an indication of our worth as a human being. Yet isn’t our morality – the content of our character? – a better measure than our worldly feats?

He writes that we either need to increase our achievements or reduce our desires. Surround ourselves with people on our level: think big fish in a small pond rather than vice versa. Happiness, it seems, is relative. Makes perfect sense to me.

What do you think? Could or would you be happier in a simpler society?

6 thoughts on “Review: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

  • Reply Invest It Wisely October 9, 2010 at 06:00

    Given that we evolved in simple tribal structures and that in ancient times, excessive wealth disparity was probably a sign of someone doing something wrong instead of achieving it honestly, I think we simply have some inherent traits that run against many aspects of the modern world.

    In the end, though, the human creature loves freedom. We were hunter-gatherers, and we have the world open to us. I think a future of a more polycentric society with more choice between competing systems and less institutional and bureaucratic hierarchy will lead to more happiness for many people. The Internet has been making strides down this direction in many avenues.

  • Reply nicoleandmaggie October 9, 2010 at 07:01

    Let’s see… would I rather be living in feudal times? Absolutely not. I would either have to be a nun or married to someone I didn’t necessarily care for. Life expectancy shorter. Plague, discrimination, maybe not completely “nasty, brutish, and short” as some scholars describe medieval life, but not the comfortable existence I’ve been able to fashion here.

    There’s definitely such a thing as too much choice, (See: Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz), but having no control over your actions and environment leads to negative outcomes (see the Whitehall studies). In medieval times as a woman I would have zero locus of control unless my husband died or I joined a convent. So yes, happiness is relative, but the freedom to build a better tomorrow and to be able to choose our comparison group is much better than being forced into one with no hope of change.

  • Reply Weekend Reading: The Changing Seasons and Canadian Thanksgiving Edition | Invest It Wisely October 9, 2010 at 13:29

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  • Reply gem October 10, 2010 at 07:01

    I’ve totally always agreed with the idea that you need to be a big fish in a smaller pond. I have never competed with anyone but myself. (Well, that’s not true as an absolute, but I try to keep it to a minimum.) I have always longed to live in a culture where I could have an arranged marriage and never have to worry about whether or not I can do better. I should read this book because it would totally validate all of those beliefs of mine, apparently, haha.

  • Reply jaime February 5, 2011 at 08:45

    I don’t believe in excess but I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with driving a BMW or living in a nice condo if you have the money and don’t put it on your credit cards. I’m not in a competition with Paris Hilton or anyone that’s wealthier. If I want to buy nice things that’s on me to do so. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

    People were kinder back then? Has he read history? Because I’ve read plenty of it, the first few centuries were full of people killing each other over land, power, and titles. While we debate about being childfree or choosing motherhood, WOMEN back then HAD to marry men so they wouldn’t be a burden on their parents. And for the most part they couldn’t marry the guy they loved, they had to marry a guy they didn’t like.

    It wasn’t strange to marry at 13 to a much older man. These days people can have teen years and not worry about being married off so they’re not a burden. Parents want their kids to be educated (independently or at college) and there is more to life than following some societal cookie cutter plan.

    And women didn’t have a choice of having kids or not having kids, they had to have them. Many of them would give up their children to convents and nuns would raise many orphans because many couples didn’t want kids. And this is all from a basic world history course that I took at community college.

    Women didn’t have the option of going to college and being educated, college for all is a 20th century concept. Women died from childbirth or other diseases, people lived until they were 30 or 40. “Unnatural” things like technology and medicine have made our lives better and has extended our lives. For both men and women.

    And men weren’t better off, while they had more freedom, many of them still had struggles. They had to go to war. Rape wasn’t always a crime back then. It eventually became one, but it wasn’t always that way. Also since many people were religious, they held up process in science, technology, medicine, etc.

    They were also anti-bathing. Many people wore wigs because of lice. The myth of the good old days is still a myth. Life was hard in the olden days and no it wasn’t cheaper. While a candy bar in the early 20th century may have been a nickel, I believe that people made around 10/15 cents an hour or so.

    Life wasn’t cheap to them, to them those were normal prices. Kids had to go to work in unsafe jobs that adults used to go to work. Oh my gosh life was just horrible. Just horrible and harsh back in the olden days. So please this myth of the good old days is just a myth and a bad one. I wish people would study history and stop spreading that myth.

  • Reply jaime February 5, 2011 at 08:54

    And if people were happier back then then why would they try to buy their freedom? Because a few lucky people would be able to save up money from their lords and buy their freedom. Why isn’t indenture servitude still popular? Why did we outlaw slavery?

    People value their freedoms and no one should be made to do anything under force. Capitalism while not a perfect system DOES give us more freedoms. Nothing is perfect, to expect to live in a perfect society is unrealistic, but we have it pretty good. I love being alive.

    Oh and in the olden days you couldn’t change your nose through plastic surgery, or have veneers, etc. Those were things that I had done, I had a nose job and veneers and I’m happier because of those things. Modern society has given us the ability to be our best selves.

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