Status Anxiety

by Alain de Botton, reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Tuesday June 22, 7:30 pm, free

It's the feeling you get when your college roommate gets profiled in a glossy magazine while you're stuck in your boring life. It's the feeling that comes when everyone at school seems to be wearing a cool new outfit every week and you're still sporting your threads from the mid-'90s. And it's the feeling you had when your coworker got the promotion even though you started the job before her. It's called status anxiety.

Alain de Botton, the lucid and oh-so-readable philosopher/writer of How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Art of Travel tackles this particular brand of social dread in Status Anxiety, a beautiful and considerate treatise on measuring up. De Botton briefly defines status anxiety as "a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or about to fall to a lower one." The author spends the first half of the book fleshing out causes for the anxiety, and the second half exploring ways that individuals have combated these worries.

In Part One, de Botton explores topics like expectation, meritocracy, and snobbery to get to the root of how status anxiety grows. In a particularly interesting chapter, he examines changes in social perceptions of poverty, first looking at medieval class-driven systems, in which the peasant class was perceived as highly useful and even righteous. With the rise of social Darwinism, the implication was that something was inherently wrong with poor people, and shame was introduced to the working class where previously there was none.

When de Botton switches to chapters on solutions to his well-articulated problem, the book truly begins to soar. He cites the redemptive powers of art, philosophy, religion, and literature as modest but effective tools to turn our minds away from materialism and towards humility, understanding, and the search for true value. Using examples as disparate as Zadie Smith's White Teeth, an Alfred Bierstadt painting, and a collection of New Yorker cartoons, de Botton gently stirs deeply held ideas and emotions rather than beating the reader over the head with rhetoric. Ultimately, Status Anxiety is a philosophical plea for love, sincerity, and kindness in a time when we need it most. CHAS BOWIE