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Status Anxiety

How social isolation and meritocracy cause fear of underachievement and how to solve this

By Alain de Botton
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  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Status Anxiety (2005) diagnoses a problem unique to modern Western societies: the fear of being perceived as unsuccessful. While our desire to climb to ever-higher rungs on the social ladder can inspire and motivate us, it can also lead to anxiety and depression. This book examines the causes of our anxiety about status and suggests a few antidotes that might help us face our fears. 

Key idea 1 of 11

A lack of love causes our anxiety to skyrocket.

What drives someone to want to constantly accumulate larger and larger sums of money? The answer that immediately comes to mind might be a simple one – greed. But there’s a small hole in that argument. If greed were the only factor, why would someone continue to desire more money, even after she’s reached an amount of wealth that couldn’t be spent in, say, five generations?

If people accumulated wealth for material reasons only – like wanting a bigger house or a fancier car – they would eventually run out of things to buy, and their pursuit of money would stop. But we know that’s not the case, so the root cause must be something else.

Consider the way we treat people of high status versus those of low status. Even the language we use when talking about each group is different. People who hold important positions in society are “somebodies,” while everyone else is a “nobody.” It’s impossible to actually be nobody, of course, but all too often, low-status people have their identities ignored or denied.

So, the quest for status might actually be about respect, and even love – not romantic love, but a feeling that your existence matters to someone. 

Why is love so important, and lovelessness so destructive? Well, most of us are unsure of our own value, and our identities are very much based on the perceptions of others. If you tell a joke and everyone laughs, your confidence in the idea that you’re a funny person will grow. On the other hand, if people avert their eyes when you walk into a room, it won’t be long before you start feeling worthless and anxious.

Our self-esteem is so fragile. Think of it as a balloon with a hole – this leaky self-esteem balloon constantly needs to be refilled with the “helium” of external love so as not to deflate completely. Meanwhile, other actions – even small ones, like not being greeted enthusiastically enough or having our calls repeatedly unanswered – can suck more air out of the balloon.

So, it’s not surprising that we’re anxious about our place in the world. In our current society, our status determines how much love and respect we’ll receive from others and, as a result, whether we can confidently love ourselves.

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