Our previous blog post looked at how Bohemians over the last 200 years have chosen to live an alternative lifestyle as a route to happiness. This great TEDx Talk by Colin Wright is a fascinating example of a modern day Bohemian who has chosen to try a different path to happiness by carrying out extreme lifestyle experiments on a regular basis. Check out this video and decide whether you think Colin Wright is trialling a happiness experiment which might work for you.
In Part 10 of Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton looks at the history of Bohemia and what it can teach us about how best to live our lives.
From the start of the 19th century onwards, a new group of people began to be noticed in the West. They often dressed simply, they didn’t much care about money or convention and they came to be described as Bohemian. There have been all kinds of Bohemian movements over the last 200 years: the Romantics, the Surrealists, Dadaists, the Hippies the Punks and the Naturists. These disparate groups were united by one thread which is the decision to stand outside the Bourgeois mainstream and to live for a different set of values. Bohemians pose an important question for all of us: who are we going to get to judge us? Whose opinions should we give weight to? We can learn from the Bohemians that status is available from a variety of sources, above all from our friends. Our choice of audience can be our own.
In Part 9 of Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton looks at how great thinkers and activists have been able to alter our values in society and to change our perception of status.
Who has high status today? Who do we all look up to? Who do the newspapers favour with respectable profiles? Rich people. People who, through their own efforts and merit, have been successful in business, entertainment and the arts. People who make no secret of their achievements. This can seem shallow and unfair, de Botton argues, but it is made all the worse because we often assume that nothing can be done to alter the ideals of our society. We tend to think that it is natural that certain groups have high status while others are marginalised. In fact it is not inevitable at all, it is possible to imagine a world in which their has been a radical redistribution of respect.
The newspapers we buy contain a miriad of subtle and insidious messages about who in the world… Read the rest...
In Part 8 of Status Society Alain de Botton argues that the benefits of a meritocratic system have been extraordinary. People who for generations were held down in a caste like hierarchy have finally been allowed to fulfill themselves in whatever ways their talents allow. Race, class, gender and age have all stopped being obstacles to advancement. An element of justice has been introduced into the distribution of rewards. Alongside meritocratic educational reform has come efforts to promote equal opportunities in the workplace. We are repeatedly told that through effort and diligence we can make it to the top.
There is a pride in the way many people speak about how they got to the top, a pride that would have been impossible in the days before meritocracy when you only got places because of who your parents were. Earning good money and having an important job title say more positive things about you than they ever used to. Unfortunately in a … Read the rest...
In part 7 of Status Anxiety Alain de Botton looks at how living standards in the West have hugely improved in the last 200 years with major increases in life expectancy, economic opportunity and wealth generally. Despite these improvements it can be argued that we are much more status conscious and status anxious than we every were in the days of horse drawn carriages. Older societies despite all their disadvantages had one big advantage when it came to status. Before the mid 18th century, status was handed out in very particular ways: it did not matter what you did but who you were, who your parents were, what kind of background you had. People at the top of society had been handed their priveleges on a plate, secondly there was very little social mobility and thirdly people had very low expectations of the kind of life they could have. Under the old feudal system only a very few could aspire to wealth and fulfillment.
Alain de Botton postulates that the search for status is linked to something which is as essential to us as light, food and water. Once we work out how central the need for love is a lot of things become clearer, from why we go shopping to why we sometimes kill one another. Much of the reason why we go shopping is unconnected to any urgent material need. We often shop in order to persuade the world we are worthwhile, interesting people. We often shop for emotional rather than practical reasons. A lot of consumption is about acquiring status symbols, material objects whose primary use is psychological and which signal to the world that we are worthy of dignity and respect.
Why do we shop?
Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist and the man responsible for the term status symbols wrote a witty book The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899. Having observed the rich at leisure he became fascinated by how people acquire certain luxury goods to symbolise… Read the rest...
Part 5 of the series Status Anxiety looks at the rewards we seek in society. We look for rewards in terms of promotion, money and buying a nicer house. For most of us the reward we really want is attention.
Alain de Botton investigates how our anxieties about status affect every aspect of our every day lives. We worry about being made redundant and how it will affect the way others see us, we worry about passed over for promotion, we worry about being kept waiting, we worry about our colleagues and even our close friends doing better than us.
However what gives us status in a given society keeps changing throughout history in the 21st century our status comes from fashion, business, sport or all three. Although the ways we attain high status have varied throughout history the consequences of high status are familiar accross time and it comes down to being treated well, being treated with respect and with a kind of love.
In part 4 of this series Alain de Botton argues that if you met someone very “successful” who had lots of fame, money and respect and asked them why they were successful and they said it was just luck you would think they were being unduly modest. On the other hand if you met someone who was a “failure” and asked them why they had not succeeded and they said it was just bad luck you would think they were trying to hide something. Essentially luck has disappeared as a plausible explanation for what has happened in our lives. Winners make their own luck is the punishing modern mantra.
In traditional societies high status and the respect it brings may have been inordinately hard to achieve but it was also pleasantly hard to lose de Botton argues. Modern society makes status dependent on achievement, primarily financial achievement. The nature of the economy which society has created is making that achievement ever more … Read the rest...
Part 3 of this documentary series by Alain de Botton on “Status Anxiety” looks at the theory of meritocracy. Is meritocracy the route to happiness? De Botton investigates the “American Dream” and asks if such a thing is achievable. The programme cites William James, an American psychologist, who looked at the problems which societies create for themselves when they start raising huge expectations in their citizens. The formula James came up with is that Self esteem = Success/Expectation.
In order to have the healthy level of self esteem which we are all looking for we can do two things: we can either become more successful or lower the number of things we expect to be successful at. The problem is that modern societies place us under huge pressure to succeed and make self esteem very elusive. Every rise in our levels of expectation entails a rise in the risk of humiliation.
This is the second part of the short documentary series by Alain de Botton which looks at our theme of how our obsession with money and status can be a huge obstruction to our happiness. Part 2 looks at why we torment ourselves with comparisons between our lives and those just a few rungs up the ladder. It does not make us any happier so why are we so incapable of curtailing our painful aspirations? It is not just comparisons with others which make us feel discontent it is also what we demand of ourselves. We are all now expected to succeed. We ask ourselves: Should I be more than I am?
Should we follow the advice of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued the case for the “noble savage”. Being wealthy is not just a question of having a lot of money, it is having what we want. Wealth is not an absolute, it is relative to desire. Every time we seek something which we can’t afford, we can be considered poor, however much… Read the rest...