Status Anxiety

Happiness intrigues me. I love reading about it, learning why some people are happy and why some people are sad. I am drawn to books on motivation, success, self-help and the like. The psychology of success on happiness is also an area that I read widely on.

There is one particular concept on success and happiness that has had a particular impact on me, because it’s so much a part of my life: the concept of absolute vs. relative wealth, and its relation to happiness. I was reminded of this subject after reading about it yesterday in a Dilbert comic strip.

In it Wally says to the boss, “Research has shown that happiness is not related to one’s absolute level of wealth. What matters is one’s relative wealth compared to other people.”

Pointing at Dilbert, Wally continues, “so, if I do a good job, could you cut this guy’s pay?”

Here is an excerpt from the book by Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety, which has a chapter devoted to this particular subject:

There are people whose enormous blessings leave us wholly untroubled, others whose minor advantages act as sources of relentless torment. We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like; we envy members of our reference group. There are few success more unendurable than those of our close friends…

It is the feeling that we might be something other than what we are — a feeling transmitted by the superior achievements of those we take to be our equals — that generates anxiety and resentment. If we are small and live among people who are all of our own height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size (Figure 1).

Status Anxiety -- Anxious Men

But if others in our group grow so much as a little taller, we are liable to feel sudden unease and fall into dissatisfaction and envy even though we have not ourselves diminished in size by even a millimetre (Figure 2)

In the same book, Alain de Botton quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville, in his influential study Democracy in America (1835):

When all prerogatives of birth and fortune have been abolished, when every profession is open to everyone an ambitious man may think it is easy to launch himself on a great career and feel that he has been called to no common destiny. But this is a delusion which experience quickly corrects. When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed. That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them even in calm and easy circumstances.

The Day I Stopped Hating

I did not stop hating today. But I did stop hating somebody.

But then again, maybe “hating” is too strong a word. I stopped disliking somebody today, and I am mighty glad I did.

She used to mean a lot to me; but not in the romantic sense. Defnitely not in the romantic sense. I admit I did have thoughts about the possibility of us; those thoughts were serious, but in all earnestness I had promised myself not to go too far.

I was, at that time, in love with someone else.

I realised at that time also, that if I ever hooked up with her, it wasn’t because I loved her, no. It would have been a relationship based on convenience.

I had never been in a romantic relationship, while I very much longed to be in one; and the girl I was in love with didn’t quite reciprocate my love in the way I would have wished she had. So you see, this would have been a great opportunity to right these wrongs.

I treated her well. She treated me well. Some of my friends thought we were attached. I sometimes thought we were attached. But we weren’t. We couldn’t. I wouldn’t.

She never said she was in love with me. I presumed she was in love with me.

The gifts she gave me. The 6-hour phone calls at midnight. The hearts she drew on the gift wrappers, which she later camouflaged into weird-looking stars. The coy way she looked at me, through the side of her eyes.

I thought she was in love with me. Still do. But I was not in love with her. Never was.

Those 6-hour calls. They bothered me. They were too late, too long, and I was too sleepy. But I didn’t know how to say goodbye. So I endured.

She started sharing her problems. I wasn’t ready for that. I tried to solve them, I couldn’t. I felt useless. She made me feel bad for leaving her still feeling bad.

Then she cried on the phone one day. I told her to stop. She didn’t. It irritated me, much like nails on chalkboard. She still called me. I wouldn’t pick up. She sent me text messages. I ignored them. She sent e-mails. I classified them as junk. She sent me a pen-and-paper letter. I kept it, but never got down to replying.

I finally did reply — 6 months later. I waited apprehensively for her reply. It never came. I rejoiced. But I felt guilt. I hated her. She irritated me to the core. And she never knew it. I never told her.

I hated myself for hating her. I hated her for making her hate myself for hating her.

A few years on, today, I went through my old mails and gifts. I saw the heart disguised as a star. I saw the cancelled “love”s, cleverly hidden behind more neutral words.

She never was that bad. The gifts she gave me, the letters she wrote me — they made me smile. And I only realised it now.

Secret Yearnings

I went to Times Bookstore at Plaza Singapura today and got myself three books. All three books had to do with money, or more precisely, they had to do with the procurement of it. It felt strange how I had to spend money to learn how to make it; the books were not cheap.

After I had made my purchase, I proceeded to Dhoby Ghaut MRT station. At the station, while still pondering over how long it would take for me to recover the money I had spent, I was distracted by a girl.

I found her attractive. She looked my age, maybe a year or two younger. As I looked on wishing I had something to say to her, I noticed she was doing something very perculiar: she kept on looking at her reflection in the glass wall separating the platform from the track — in a way that reminded me of a parrot.

Looking intently at her reflection in the darkened glass window, she would suddenly tilt her head to the side. Her gaze never leaving herself. She would adjust her hair a little, then simply keep on gazing, head tilted. After a minute of gazing, she would walk away, only to return to do the exact same thing. It amused me, and I enjoyed watching this little game of hers.

I was looking at her — staring! — but she did not care that I did. She wouldn’t she have cared if the ground beneath her caved in. The way she looked at herself, you just knew she would float above the caved-in ground.

She was a picture of serenity. Of rebellion against the world. Her indifference would have made a rock proud.

Then the train came, and we parted ways.

Maybe If I Was Good

I used to enjoy playing football. Football was to me an escape, something I could do to forget about the world. During a football match, other aspects of life just melted away into a swirling mass of hopes and dreams, stress and pressures. No, the cat didn’t die; no, my weight was just right; no, I had no problems with any addiction; no, my life was just perfect.

I used to be good at it — was never the last to be called during school’s recess instant draft pick, often one of the first. Was always dependable to keep the goals out, or knock the goals in, depending on the situation; always played a reasonably good game. I liked it.

Then as I grew older, the ability gap between myself and my peers slowly grew too. I was good, but never that good anymore. Due to work commitments, I started playing less of the game; I stopped following the EPL (English Premier League);I stopped buying football magazines; I stopped thinking footy.

Football became less and less a part of my life, so much so that sometimes when people ask who play football, I fail to raise up my hand or make known my keeness of it. During ice-breakers, football is hardly mentioned anymore as being one of my hobbies; it has, in effect, removed itself from my identity.

I played it intermittently, but each time I played it, it appeared to reinforce my feelings of inadequacy — in football; in life. I started not only not liking the sport, but almost loathing it.

Then one day, out of the blue, I had a good game. A great game. Not only did I not make any serious errors, I actually added to the game’s value. Without me, the game would have been less than what it was.

My relationship with the game improved two-, no, four-, fold instantly. I was looking forward to the next game! And I still am.