Todd N's Reviews > Status Anxiety

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
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it was amazing
bookshelves: finance, favorites, america-in-decline
Recommended for: anyone

This is the second of two books by Alain de Botton that I've read this month. The first one was about the ability of philosophy to console us during life's trials. This book is an examination of the causes and potential cures for social anxiety, which he defines as "a worry ... 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."

Living in hypercompetitive Silicon Valley and having experienced the dot com boom and bust I have thought a lot about wealth and status as well as its relationship to happiness, though not in such an well-organized and methodical manner. I wish this book had been available to read in the late nineties.

The causes of status anxiety make up the first part of the book. They are Lovelessness, Expectation, Meritocracy, Snobbery, and Dependence. The chapter on meritocracy was the most illuminating to me. The source of anxiety in a meritocratic society is thus: If smart, hard-working people are at the top of society, then somewhere in our hearts we believe the contrapositive to be true -- at the bottom of society are the dumb and lazy people.

De Botton contrasts this with the medieval social order. It may have sucked to be a peasant, but at least you didn't have to feel guilty about it. And besides, Christianity taught that it was easier for poor people to get into heaven. At the other end of spectrum are the secular Social Darwinists who argued that it was dangerous for society to help the poor because it prevents the unfit from being eliminated.

The cures of status anxiety are discussed in the second (and my favorite) part of the book. They are Philosophy, Art, Politics, Religion, and Bohemia.

Through philosophy we learn that we can insert reason between other's view of us and the message that we get from it. We may even want to consider what is called in the book an "intelligent misanthropy," by admitting that the generally held views of the majority are almost always riddled with confusion and error.

The section on art has an interesting section on tragedy and how it can make us more empathetic by showing how simple human nature makes us all vulnerable to really messing up our lives. And it ends with a section on cartoons which made me feel oddly vindicated.

Bohemia, my favorite of the "cures," is presented as a sort of secular version of Christianity, complete with its own martyrs -- the French crazy poet Gerard de Nerval and the 18-year-old poet suicide Thomas Chatterton -- and saints -- Thoreau, Baudelaire, and Bukowski. By redefining failure by middle-class standards as success by bohemian standards, bohemians are able to sidestep the issue of status anxiety entirely.

After reading this book even non-millionaires will be able to hold their head high in Silicon Valley. Highly recommended.

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Reading Progress

September 23, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
October 12, 2008 – Finished Reading
November 7, 2009 – Shelved as: finance
March 1, 2015 – Shelved as: favorites
March 15, 2016 – Shelved as: america-in-decline

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