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.

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