[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Status Anxiety' and 'The Status Syndrome': Keeping Up With the Joneses

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'Status Anxiety' and 'The Status Syndrome': Keeping Up With the Joneses
New York Times Book Review, 4.8.22

By Alain de Botton.
Illustrated. 306 pp. Pantheon Books. $24.

How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity.
By Michael Marmot.
319 pp. Times Books/ Henry Holt & Company. $26.

In America, we like to pretend class differences don't
really exist -- or at least that they're no impediment to
getting ahead. But isn't it likely that we underestimate
the extent of our status anxiety as well? It took a
Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, to diagnose the problem
on our soil. An unhealthy fixation on status, he wrote, was
to blame for the ''strange melancholy often haunting
inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance.''

And now, two centuries later, two British authors have
updated his diagnosis, giving it a dire spin. According to
one, concern with social position has become a
soul-crushing disease afflicting much of Western
civilization. According to the other, merely ranking lower
in the social hierarchy than other people -- whether or not
you actually give a damn -- can kill you. Together, their
books suggest a possible social crisis of farreaching
import. ''60 Minutes,'' where have you been?

Alain de Botton is the more optimistic of the two. His
previous foray into self-help, the improbably successful
''How Proust Can Change Your Life,'' was a novel compendium
of literary trivia and moral uplift -- therapy for the
middlebrow. His new book, ''Status Anxiety,'' which aims to
destigmatize this shameful disorder and facilitate its
cure, presents a similar blend of edification and
consolation. A dissertation on status anxiety leavened with
New Yorker cartoons, Old Master paintings and (ugh) smiley
faces, it contends that the obsession with rank, though
increasingly prevalent and ''capable of ruining extended
stretches of our lives,'' is amenable to treatment. The
first step to recovery is (of course) acceptance. Forgive
yourself the SoHo Club membership, the Southampton beach
house and those gratuitous allusions to your son's Yale
degree. Such foibles are hardly our fault, de Botton
explains. We're all stuck with a ''congenital uncertainty
as to our own value,'' and bad behavior -- name dropping,
overweening ambition, conspicuous consumption -- is the
inevitable result, a symptom of our desperate bid for the
world's esteem. ''The predominant impulse behind our desire
to rise in the social hierarchy may be rooted not so much
in the material goods we can accrue or the power we can
wield as in the amount of love we stand to receive as a
consequence of high status,'' de Botton soothingly tells
us. ''Money, fame and influence may be valued more as
tokens of -- and means to -- love rather than ends in

De Botton hastens to point out that although the perks and
comforts of rank are undeniably delightful, merely
occupying an enviable social rung is by no means a
barometer of true worth. He makes this case through a
highly selective survey of Western history. Buoyed first by
Christianity and later by Marxism, the poor enjoyed a moral
status as elevated as their social rank was low, de Botton
argues, while the affluent were compelled to pursue their
pleasures under the stigmas of sin and corruption. The
spread of capitalist meritocracy in the 19th and 20th
centuries eventually dealt this delicate arrangement a
devastating blow. ''Money,'' he says, ''began to look like
a sound signifier of character. The rich were not only
wealthier, it seemed; they might also be plain better.''
More unbearable to contemplate was the corollary: ''Low
status came to seem not merely regrettable but also
deserved.'' In such a world, of course, status anxiety runs

These assertions are buttressed by extended passages from
de Tocqueville, Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but
de Botton's remedies for status anxiety are all his own.
Try novels, he suggests; the perceptive ones ''help us
understand and appreciate the value of every hidden life
that rests in an unvisited tomb.'' Or study paintings,
since art ''can challenge society's normal understanding of
who or what matters,'' and laugh at those New Yorker
cartoons, humor being ''a useful weapon with which to
attack the high status of others.'' Even ancient ruins can
be curative: ''Beholding old stones, we may feel our
anxieties over our achievements -- and the lack of them --

As for positive role models, de Botton proposes the cynics
of ancient Greece (they didn't give a damn about other
people's opinions), the bohemians of 19th-century Europe
(they realized money wasn't everything and knew how to have
a good time) and Jesus Christ (who understood the most
important point of all: that we are ''fundamentally, in
every way that really matters, just like everyone else'').
Religion, it turns out, is status anxiety's most effective
antidote. There is nothing like Christianity, de Botton
suggests, for exposing the vanity of earthly pursuits and
restoring a proper sense of humility to our lives.
Particularly helpful is the Christian emphasis on
mortality, since ''however powerful and revered others may
be, we can take comfort in the thought that the lot of us
will ultimately end up as that most democratic of
substances: dust.''

Death plays a less therapeutic role in ''The Status
Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and
Longevity.'' The alarming message here is that status has
become a lethal threat. In the relatively prosperous,
industrialized West, Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist at
University College, London, writes, ''Where you stand in
the social hierarchy is intimately related to your chances
of getting ill and your length of life.'' And the higher
your status, the better your prospects. Bedford may be just
slightly more chic than Chappaqua, but, according to
Marmot's logic, even just slightly could mean markedly
fewer heart attacks and whole extra years of life for its

A numbing arsenal of facts and figures serves to show that
it is social rank -- and not suspiciously similar-sounding
factors like income or education -- that makes the crucial
difference. There's the study of Oscar winners that found
they live four years longer than their co-stars and fellow
nominees, and the fact that with each mile along the subway
line from downtown Washington to suburban Montgomery
County, Md., life expectancy increases by a year and a
half. There is also a mountain of suggestive evidence from
primate research: low-status rhesus macaques with heart
disease; low-status baboons with soaring cortisol levels
and unwholesome amounts of HDL cholesterol. It is not our
social position per se that does us in, all this implies,
but rather the stress that comes from having less control
over our work and lives than people of higher rank. Not
that this is exactly news.

The linchpin of Marmot's argument is his own huge
decades-long study of Whitehall, the British civil service.
With its clear hierarchy of porters, clerks and
administrators, its rigidly defined pay scales and
employment grades, Whitehall is an ''exquisitely
stratified'' bureaucracy, Marmot boasts, an ''ideal''
environment in which to document the deleterious effects of
status on health. And that is precisely the problem. By
using Whitehall as a stand-in for society, Marmot confuses
the artificial organization of the workplace with the messy
chaos of life. (No wonder he finds that ''the social
gradient in health in Whitehall is steeper than in the
country as a whole.'')

The mistake Marmot, in his seriousness, and de Botton, in
his superficiality, both make is positing a single social
order in which we are all assigned a place and of which a
vast majority of us are victims. Once upon a time, this may
have been the case. And in the authors' native Britain, it
still may be. But in America, at least, status is today a
complex phenomenon. To the credit of our evolving
democracy, it is increasingly unclear who has it and who
doesn't. Given the many subcultures each of us inhabits,
it's entirely possible to wield influence in one sphere
while hardly registering in another. And who can say which
defines a person more: working for minimum wage in the
mailroom or being hugely popular on Friendster?

Emily Eakin is a reporter for the Arts & Ideas pages of The


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