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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 10-Dec-10

 


Friday 10-December-10

Status anxiety

Alain De Botton wrote a splendid book on 'status anxiety'. He also did a TV show about it and I made some extended notes during its transmission. Here they are...

When we are deciding how successful and important we are, with whom do we compare ourselves? We do not feel envious about the Queen or Bill Gates as we define success in comparison with others who are nearly like us and who we consider our equals in some way. A problem here is that we are brought up to believe that everyone is equal ? we thus are subject significant envy. And in America, where equality is fundamental, this is most significant.

Alexis de Tocqueville noted this in early 19th century, in ?Democracy in America?. He commented on how Americans always wanted more, rather than be content with their position in life. Low status Americans see this as a betrayal of their expectations and it is a problem for nearly all when there are no prizes for coming second.

Motivational speakers and writers live on this hope. There are endless self-help books, seminars, coaching, training and so on. In fact there is a whole industry dedicated to relieving those who consider themselves too low on the social ladder of their hard-earned money.

Rousseau thought of wealth as having what we want, not having money. So by changing what you want affects ?wealth? and hence happiness. His idea of the ?noble savage? was that they were actually happier.

A simple equation is that ?happiness = success / expectation?. You can hence be happy by not only being more successful but also by expecting less. But social rules often forbid the latter, also forbidding happiness for the masses. Those who lower their sights in life are labeled as failures and avoided like the plague. If we believe those who are successful deserve it, then we also believe those who are unsuccessful also deserve it. If we look up to the winners, we look down our noses at those who are ?beneath? us (or simply ignore them).

Having money therefore becomes less about fortune and more about moral superiority. When those who have less are seen as less deserving, this is an excuse for minimising welfare. Even parts of the church are preaching that money and riches are good. Jesus was poor so we can be rich. Hmm.

Status has changed over history ? Sparta was all about aggression whilst status in 18th century England was about land and manners.

Our identity depends on how others see us. We seek attention to boost our sense of identity and status gives us this. If we have higher status, we expect to be treated well, with respect, with care and attention. Low-paid work is disliked because of this lack of respect. It is also about self-respect. If others ignore us, we are tortured. If they praise us, we feel good.

School reunions are hugely status-anxious events. Those who have succeeded in life flash the cash and talk about their conquests, whilst those who have not may resort to fabrication just to feel they are at all worthy. There is little sweeter for the class geek or general victim to show how they have prospered. If truth be known, that success may well have been driven by a long desire to ?show them?. Many millionaires are short, red-haired, dyslexic or otherwise different in a way that seems to provoke some children into bullying.

Anonymous up-bringing that ignores and criticizes children can lead to serious problems. We want to be safely loved. In fact the love we seek, other than romantic love, is love from the world. Those who strive hardest for success are those who fear failure the most (and hence are least happy).

This search for identity through status continues in many parts of our lives. Brands play on this, in particular those associated with luxury goods. We pay top money for goods with fancy labels and fool ourselves into thinking we are somehow better. And so we strut and pose and keep our fingers crossed that others will be awed into promoting us up the endless ladder of social status.


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