NEW YORK — Sitting in a hotel lobby on Central Park South, Alain de Botton has just gotten off the Queen Mary II, where he was invited as “the entertainment.” Part of an Oxford University program, he was asked to give lectures on the topics he’s covered in his books: philosophy, travel, Proust and, now, wealth and power, which he chronicles in his latest meditation on contemporary life, “Status Anxiety” (Pantheon).
“They responded better than I thought,” the British author insists. “If you’re going on the Queen Mary, you’re not going to be thinking about status. You are status.” As expected, de Botton found his theories of status anxiety — this worry, “so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect” — were perfectly represented on board. There were the retired people who felt a drop in status because they no longer held their chief executive positions; there were the mothers who felt insecure since leaving jobs to raise a family, and there were the showoffs wielding expensive suites and Vuitton luggage.
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“You’re out there on the high seas and yet, every night, people dress up in black tie,” de Botton explains, with incredulity. “What floor you are on is like who you are.”
De Botton’s fascination with such emotions as envy, schadenfreude, snobbery and ambition began shortly after he left school. “I realized status anxiety was a major epidemic,” he says. “It was the driving emotion of the modern world.”
And though he’s since become a best-selling author and ironically comes from a background filled with wealth and status, he feels an added pressure to multitask. “People can do anything. I’ve written books, but why not start a corporation?”
Nevertheless, what he calls the “permanent sense of possibility” is something of a mirage. De Botton points out that it’s as unlikely today that someone can become as rich and successful as Bill Gates as it would have been to become Louis XIV in the 17th century. “But the key thing is that it’s not made to feel unlikely,” he explains. “It’s made to feel really likely. If you’ve got a few ideas about software, if you’ve got a garage, you, too, could found Microsoft.”
The problem stems from there being a huge gap between expectations and reality. “I read a New York Times report that 59 percent of Americans expect to die millionaires,” he recalls. “The real figure is closer to 4 percent.” Since our society is built on there being only “celebrities” and “nobodies,” we buy into the concept that “the only way to be a good person is to be extraordinary or to have done something extraordinary.”
“And that’s a very exhausting idea,” the author continues. “You know, it really does kill people on golf courses all across the United States.”
At the same time, de Botton thinks that a little status anxiety can be a good thing. “It gets us out of bed in the morning,” he says. “But it’s important to make sure you’re envying the right things.
“At the heart of it all is fear,” de Botton goes on. “We fear that other people will humiliate us with their success. And they do. They forget to call us. They bore us. They have a slightly snooty manner. It’s understandable that we celebrate their failure.”
There are certain things, according to the author, that we can do to keep our status anxiety in check. We should be wary of the clichés about success and failure we pick up from reality television, the movies or even the Wall Street Journal. De Botton, for one, tries to keep his distance from status-obsessed individuals, the ones who ask him, “What parties have you been to recently?”
But, of course, it’s all easier said than done. “You know, if I told you I really wanted a Mercedes, by the end, you’d want a Mercedes, as well,” de Botton adds. “We’re very bad at keeping in perspective the things we really want.”
— Marshall Heyman