I thought I’d tell you about a book I’m reading called Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, in which the author proposes that the number one stress factor in modern society is the perpetual anxiety that we may not be, as the army says, all that we can be.
This could be illustrated by the story that about a lawyer who roomed in law school with a man who later went on to write legal dramas and TV shows. The lawyer became very successful and well-known in his city, but his roommate married into Hollywood royalty and made hundreds of millions of dollars. In contrast, the merely successful lawyer lived a failed existence.
The poor man is a victim of status anxiety because he happened to have roomed with a man whose different ambitions happened to have worked out (How many more people fail to become successful TV writers!) Nothing the lawyer does is likely to bring him the accolades, fame and wealth of his former roommate, and so his life will forever pale in comparison. What did he do wrong? What could he have done better? Why has he been relegated to a rather low rung in the social hierarchy when his friend has been elevated to such an extreme?
de Botton presents a historical perspective for this problem: for thousands of years, there were three classes of people: the nobles, the peasants and the clergy.
For most of human history, you understood your place in the world. You didn’t expect to rise above your station. If you were a peasant, you lived a hard existence, but you understood it and you were appreciated. The clergy and the nobles recognized that, without your work, their lives would not be possible.
And then in 1651, Thomas Hobbes proposed that the individual predated society, and that governments existed at the pleasure of the people. deBotton says, “Thus was born an astonishing new idea: that governments justify their existence only by promoting possibilities for prosperity and happiness among all those they rule over.”
There followed the American revolution, the dissolution of the aristocracy and their titles, legislation in every state against primogeniture – this idea in which the first-born son inherits the entire estate – a war to end slavery, and the passing of civil rights laws to protect people no matter what their ethnicity, religion, disability or age, and, ultimately, a general campaign to promote meritocracy.
In the modern age of meritocracy, we have changed the stories that tell ourselves. While people in the past may have believed that the rich were sinful and corrupt, wealth has become a sign of goodness, that the wealthy are doing the right things for the society. Wealth is a personal validation, and the poor are the sinful, corrupt and the lazy.
This is a huge difference in the way people perceive the world: five hundred years ago, if you met a poor person, you would call him an “unfortunate”: today, the most prevalent term would be a “loser.”
In a meritocracy, we assume credit for our successes, but that means that we must also assume the responsibility of our failures, which can have awful psychological consequences.
In the worst cases, status anxiety leads to increased rates of suicides. There are more suicides in developed, individualist countries than any other part of the world. If you go to the self-help section in a book store, you’ll find two kinds of books: one that says you can do anything, you can make it happen, and the other that tells you how to cope with your failure – you’re OK: here’s how to deal being a loser. The existence of this second class of self-help books arises because, as I think any reasonable person will agree, not everyone can do everything.
de Botton suggests that there is a certain haphazardness in success and failure. There are too many accidents involved: accidents of birth, illnesses, wars, technologies and macro economic trends that tend to define whether our own garden blooms or dies.
deBotton notes that what we regard as having status changes from generation to generation or even decade to decade. 150 years ago, we might have wanted to become railroad executives; 50 years ago industrialists, and 10 years ago investment bankers. Our definitions of success are highly impressionable, and tend to derive from our parents and from the media, and so our self-esteem is under constant pressure.
Henry James formed an equation for self-esteem
Self esteem = _______________________________
When I was a young man, I learned to play golf. Some days, I thought I should consider a career in golf; other days, I shot in the mid-100s, so I found golf a frustrating activity, and resolved not believe that I could be a great golfer. Golf does not affect my self- esteem. On the other hand, I can usually follow musical notes and competently sing a song, so I have higher pretensions about singing. If someone were to tell me that I am poor singer, it would reduce my self-esteem.
Most of us believe that we are above average at our jobs, so our success at work, where we spend so much of our time, acutely affects our self-esteem.
We cannot be successful at everything, but the pretension component of this equation is constantly fed: we must be slim, wealthy, excellent parents, extraordinary sex partners (is there a reason Viagra sells so well?), and people who are recognized as “giving back to our communities.” We can gather all this from a single issue of People magazine, or perhaps the more aptly titled Vanity Fair.
The easiest way to be happy is to manage the pretension component of self-esteem, but we can also choose how we spend our time. deBotton asks the question, “What makes work meaningful?” and answers himself with the incredibly succinct, “When we delight in it or reduce another person’s suffering.” One lawyer took the road of delight, and it clearly worked out for him, but there are many ways to delight in one’s work besides writing television shows.
deBotton also suggests that there are a variety of different audiences to which one can turn for status: industrialists, bohemians, families, philosophers, and we might consider our Rotary Club as a place where we ought to feel comfortable, come what may.
As for me, I take great consolation in what I think is an organizing spirit in the universe, and this offers other psychological benefits such as the ability to forgive and a weekly reminder that truth exists independent of fashion.
I’m also consoled by the fact that, whatever we do matters in the moment and not much long thereafter. The greatest companies of the nineteenth century are now tired or dead; the greatest statesmen of the past are known mainly for their wooden teeth. So the most important person in the world at any given time is likely to be the one sitting right across the table. Plutocrat or unfortunate: there is something interesting going on there.