The idea that our potential for greatness is infinite can be paralyzing. It’s like looking at a 10-page diner menu when you’re starving. The options are paralyzing. It’s a nice feeling that our possibilities are limitless, but it overwhelms us. In life, having an endless set of dreams to pursue makes us feel like productivity is the only activity. Stagnancy feels like failure in our social context. We seem to all feel like failures.
If you’ve ever experienced a vain jolt of envy when scrolling past someone’s success on Instagram, or a paralyzing shot of depression when you compare yourself to your peers, you’ve experienced what is called “status anxiety,” or a desperate feeling of inadequacy in our system that ascertains value on the basis of class, professional/academic merit, and influence. In Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton says:
“To feel that we are taken no notice of necessarily disappoints the most ardent desires of human nature.”
Our desire to rise in our social hierarchy is entirely rooted in the human desire for attention. It’s impossible to exist in a vacuum and tell ourselves we are significant and valuable. We need others to confirm our ideas of ourselves into solidity. We exist in reference to others.
According to this book, part of the reason why status anxiety is so prevalent in the Western sphere is social equity. When the idea of monarchical birthright and rigid class structure died in the U.S. and declined in Europe, it gave everyone the “equal opportunity to rise,” which then plunged all humans into the unknown. It allowed envy to flourish... if I can easily be as wealthy as the man in the estate up the hill, why aren't I? With the idea of a set destiny and a fixed social class now diminished, people were simultaneously gifted and burdened with agency. If you’re a member of the poorer populations and can’t pull yourself out of that social class, it’s now a personal failure rather than a systemic inconsistency. We know now that equal opportunity is a myth for the most part, and systemic failings are at the root of raging inequality. But that’s another discussion.
According to Botton, the possible solutions to the quiet despair of status anxiety are as follows: