If the whole of human history was a book, each page spanning several hundred years, the last page would be more heart-racing than all the previous pages combined: in the last few centuries, we’ve increased life expectancy, completely eradicated many once widespread diseases, and drastically reduced poverty. In contemporary society, the majority of people live in prosperity unimaginable only a few decades ago. In 1950 alone, three-quarters of the world lived in extreme destitution; by 2015, that number had dropped to below 10%. But while our particular page in human history has seen unprecedented economic growth and astounding technological and scientific progress, it also recounts a more distressing tale of hard-to-place malaise and pervasive dissatisfaction. Though the 21st century man’s material quality of life is doubtlessly better than the ancient hunter-gather’s or medieval serf’s, he suffers a malady that very rarely afflicted his ancestors: status anxiety, or the near constant fear of being perceived as a failure.
Why status anxiety is a distinctly modern phenomenon is what Alain De Botton explains in Status Anxiety, the same philosophical masterpiece that revealed status as a construction of culture. Pondering the paradox that we’ve become less satisfied as we’ve accumulated more things, De Botton writes:
“The benefits of two thousand years of Western civilization are familiar enough: an extraordinary increase in wealth, in food supply, in scientific knowledge, in the availability of consumer goods, in physical security, in life expectancy and economic opportunity. What is perhaps less apparent, and more perplexing, is that these impressive material advances have coincided with a phenomenon left unmentioned in Nixon’s address to his Soviet audience: a rise in the levels of status anxiety among ordinary Western citizens, by which is meant a rise in levels of concern about importance, achievement and income.
A sharp decline in actual deprivation may, paradoxically, have been accompanied by an ongoing and even escalating sense or fear of deprivation. Blessed with riches and possibilities far beyond anything imagined by ancestors who tilled the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe, modern populations have nonetheless shown a remarkable capacity to feel that neither who they are nor what they have is quite enough.”
The idea that we’re more plagued by discontent today than in previous generations defies common sense. How is it possible to live in an affluent society with every conceivable luxury and convenience and still feel as though who you are and what you have isn’t enough? For De Botton, the answer is expectation. What, exactly, qualifies as “enough”– enough prestige, enough wealth– is relative: we determine what is enough based on our peer group, or those we deem similar to us. If those in our immediate social circle– family, old high school and college friends– have impressive job titles at glamorous Fortune 500 companies or can afford luxurious trips across the continent, we’ll begin to expect ourselves to attain similar heights of success.
But what happens when we perceive ourselves to be falling behind while our more talented, well-regarded friends hurry ahead? Even if we objectively occupy rather high rungs on the social ladder, most of us are stung by bitter envy at the news of our peers’ success. The idea that we could potentially be someone other than who we are tortures us with a sense that possibilities are boundless. The result? We in the modern era never quite feel content:
“Such feelings of deprivation may seem less peculiar if we consider the psychology behind the way we decide precisely how much is enough. Our judgement of what constitutes an appropriate limit on anything– for example, on wealth or esteem– is never arrived at independently; instead, we make such determinations by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, a set of people who we believe resemble us. We cannot, it seems, appreciate what we have for its own merit, or even against what our medieval forebears had. We cannot be impressed by how prosperous we are in historical terms. We see ourselves as fortunate only when we have as much as, or more than, those we have grown up with, work alongside, have as friends or identify with in the public realm.
If we are made to live in a droughty, insalubrious cottage and bend to the harsh rule of an aristocrat occupying a large and well-heated castle, and yet we observe that our equals all live exactly as we do, then our condition will seem normal– regrettable, certainly, but not a fertile ground for envy. If, however, we have a pleasant home and a comfortable job but learn through ill-advised attendance at a school reunion that some of our old friends (there is no more compelling reference group) now reside in houses grander than ours, bought on the salaries they are paid in more enticing occupations than our own, we are likely to return home nursing a violent sense of misfortune.
It is the feeling that we might, under different circumstances, be something other than what we are– a feeling inspired by exposure to the superior achievements of those whom we take to be our equals– that generates anxiety and resentment. If we are short, say, but live among people of our same height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size.
But if others in our group grow just a little taller than us, we are liable to feel sudden unease and to be gripped by dissatisfaction and envy, even though we have not ourselves diminished in size by so much as a fraction of a millimeter.
Given the vast inequalities we are daily confronted with, the most notable feature of envy may be that we manage not to envy everyone. There are people whose enormous blessings leave us wholly untroubled, even as others’ negligible advantages become a source of relentless torment for us. We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like– we envy only members of our reference group. There are few successes more unendurable than those of our ostensible equals.”
Before the paradigm-shifting political and social revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was believed that God ordained social class. Just as God granted Adam dominion over the beasts and babes, he gave certain men command: kings were meant to reign over kingdoms, masters over slaves, the oppressors over the oppressed. Because your station was understood as an expression of God’s will, it would be both immoral and futile to revolt against your designated rank. Unlike in modern egalitarian societies, in the aristocratic states of the past, status was determined by one’s family name– one could not transcend the destiny of his born social class. To suggest that a lowly peasant could aspire to one day be king would be preposterous, as nonsensical as proposing a lion was once a rat.
Though the medieval serf’s life was undoubtedly more arduous than the modern man’s, in many ways it was less troubled. Unlike we in the 21st century who are tormented by a terrible sense that we can be anyone and do anything, the impoverished of earlier eras were satisfied with their stations: they didn’t begrudge their lord’s lavish manor or resent the rich. Because they never expected to overcome the limitations of their parentage, they suffered none of the insecurity about stature that we do today. After all, if it was predetermined that you should sit on a certain stratum of the social ladder, if it was impossible to raise your reputation because social orders were fixed and unchanging, what else could follow but acceptance? If you were born a serf, you’d die a serf, simple as that:
“It follows that the greater the number of people whom we take to be our equals and compare ourselves to, the more there will be for us to envy.
If the great political and consumer revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries caused psychological anguish while vastly improving the material lot of mankind, it was because they were founded on a set of extraordinary new ideals, a practical belief in the innate equality of all human beings and in the unlimited power of anyone to achieve anything. For most of history, the opposite assumption had held sway, with inequality and low expectations being deemed both normal and wise. Very few among the masses had ever aspired to wealth or fulfillment; the rest knew well enough that they were condemned to exploitation and resignation.
‘It is clear that some men are by nature free and others are by nature slaves, and that for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right,’ Aristotle declared in his Politics (350 B.C.), voicing an opinion shared by almost all Greek and Roman thinkers and leaders. In the ancient world, slaves and members of the working classes in general were considered to be not truly human at all but a species of creature, lacking in reason and therefore perfectly fitted to a life of servitude, just as beasts of burden were suited to tilling in the fields. The notion that they might have rights and aspirations of their own would have been judged by the elite as no less absurd than, say, an expression of concern for the thought processes or level of happiness of an ox or an ass.
The belief that inequality was fair, or at least inescapable, was also subscribed to by the oppressed themselves. With the spread of Christianity during the later Roman Empire, many fell prey to a religion that taught them to accept unequal treatment as part of a natural, unchangeable social order.
A good Christian society…took the form of a rigidly stratified monarchy, a design said to reflect the ordering of the celestial kingdom. Just as God wielded absolute power over all creation, from the angels down to the smallest toads, so, too, his appointed rulers on earth were understood to preside over a society where God had given everyone his and her place, from the noblemen down to the farm-hand.”
It wasn’t until the birth of democracy that societies adopted a more egalitarian perspective. Whereas in the Middle Ages it was believed that God granted dominion to a privileged few, in the 17th century, philosophers began to argue all men– not just the elite upper classes– were endowed with certain rights by virtue of their humanness. No historical event captured this shift in thought more dramatically than the American Revolution, whose founding document declared with unparalleled poetry that among these rights were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The idea that all men– king and subject, nobleman and peasant– were more or less equal represented a radical departure from the severely stratified class system of the past. In the New World, democratic ideals razed rigid class barriers to the ground. No longer was your status at birth an inescapable fate; through persistence and perseverance, even the poorest man– it was thought– could surpass his humble social class. Rather than be dictated by family lineage, standing in the modern meritocracy was allocated on the basis of ability and talent: the most distinguished positions were now available to everyone, both the wealthy and the penniless.
Because democracies offered more equitable social and economic opportunities, they broadened what the masses thought possible: for the first time, a commoner could aspire to be a gentleman, the most ordinary drudge, a fashionable member of high society. With this rise of meritocratic ideals came a historic upswing in expectations. On one hand, the ability of democracy to increase what the majority of its citizens expected of themselves represented a monumental achievement: never before had a such a large number of people had such grandiose ambitions; but on the other hand, the higher your expectations, the more likely you are to meet dispiriting disappointment.
As the democratic philosophy of equal opportunity attracted more and more adherents, the average person’s aspirations inflated to previously unheard of proportions. In the old aristocratic class system, you only compared yourself to your direct peer group: if you were a servant, you compared yourself to other servants, etc. But in the egalitarian era, everyone was your supposed equal: it was now reasonable for a servant to compare his fate to a president’s– and expect that he, too, could achieve great things. And though fairer accessibility to opportunities made such upward mobility possible for a fortunate few, the vast majority of the working class had their dreams disappointed. So while the medieval peasant had only the most limited notion of what was possible, he possessed a certain peace of mind that eludes us today. Because he harbored no lofty aspirations, his heart was spared the embitterment of thwarted expectations:
“The rigid hierarchy that had been in place in almost every Western society until the late eighteenth century, denying all hope of social movement except in the rarest of cases, the system glorified by John of Salisbury and John Fortescue, was unjust in a thousand all too obvious ways, but it offered those on the lowest rungs one notable freedom: the freedom to not have to take the achievements of quite so many people as reference points– and so find themselves severely wanting in status and importance.”
The advent of mass media in the late nineteenth century raised expectations to even loftier heights. For the first time in history, ordinary people– through the glossy fashion spreads of Elle and Vogue– gained access to the rich’s extravagant lives. With just a quick stop at the corner newspaper stand (or in today’s terms, one effortless click on a vapid celebrity gossip site), a man of modest means could glimpse his parallel lives– grander, more glittery fates in which he could sip champagne and caviar and sail a yacht with John Jacob Aster. In this new world where anything was possible, no citizen was too poor– to borrow the words of Alexis de Tocqueville– to “cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich.”
But the effect of this near constant exposure to the rich was to make the poor feel poorer. It stands to reason that if you spend the majority of your time gazing at gorgeous, impeccably-dressed supermodels in Chanel sweaters, your life will seem lacking by comparison. It’s the same phenomenon that occurs when you read about the hottest Hollywood parties: suddenly your weekend seems far less exciting. The rise of celebrity culture has convinced us in the contemporary era that who we are and what we have isn’t enough; we need more: more stylish handbags, more luxurious home furnishings, more glamorous friends.
The fact that the media relentlessly stokes the flames of our desire explains our current happiness crisis. Both the Buddhists and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had it right: happiness is relative to our desires. Being happy doesn’t mean possessing many things; rather, it means possessing what we yearn for– we only suffer if we don’t procure what we lust after. That’s why it’s possible for a billionaire to have a magnificent mansion and still feel discontented: if his estate is only 6,000 square feet but he longs for 8,000, his stately palace will seem little more than a shack. But if a homeless drifter sleeps in train cars yet has no desires, he will be at peace, even content. This resolves the seemingly irreconcilable paradox of our age: though we’ve managed to tremendously increase material wealth, by simultaneously multiplying the average person’s desires, we’ve made happiness harder and harder to attain:
“There are two ways to make a man richer…give him more money or curb his desires. Modern societies have done the former spectacularly well, but by continuously whetting appetites, they have at the same time managed to negate a share of their success…Insofar as advanced societies supply their members with historically elevated incomes, they appear to make us wealthier. But in truth, their net effect may be to impoverish us, because by fostering unlimited expectations, they keep open permanent gaps between what we want and what we can afford, between who we might be and who we really are.”