On Status Anxiety

Illustration: Shandra Strickland

I never forget going down to the end of the street where the richest man in Nnweje Lane, Onitsha, lived. We knew he was the richest because he watched satellite television, had the title ‘Chief’ before his name; he was the quintessential Igbo big man. Then, the rest of us had to cope with terrestrial television cable to be fancy. At the first visit with my big brother, I was no older than six. As you might expect, for me, the 8bit Nintendo on our 28inch television screen was the best thing since sliced bread. 
On entering the rich man’s house, all that was about to change. I was greeted with a television set bigger than any I had ever seen, but never mind that, his children were playing Mortal Kombat on a 16bit Sega Mega Drive. Till today, I cannot remember wanting anything more than I wanted this console. This was my first encounter with the feeling of status anxiety. 

If you have ever seen something belong to someone else and it made you less appreciative of what you have, then maybe you can also relate to this. 

In our society, not showing over excitement or squealing delight for the progress of others is often reprimanded as jealousy. This leaves us with a sense of confusion— why we aren't as happy as expected to news of other people living our ideals?
Ironically, we spend our day constantly bombarded with images of celebrities doing all we wish we did, but we feel less bad about it. If we did, chances are that the celebrities wouldn’t be getting the constant stream of endorsement they get today. The reason we don’t go green with envy when we see another picture of Beyonce living the picture perfect moment is that we have no way to reference ourselves with Beyonce. She is far to removed from our reality that being envious of her is quite like feeling bad about Batman getting a new Bat-Mobile. 
This isn’t the same as Jola from the house across or Manyo we walked with to school. We have reference points that align us with these people and it is easier to feel entitled to what is happening for them. 

On closer inspection, it is clearer that our discomfort is without envy or some other personal vindictive emotion. Our discomfort comes from a fear of being left behind; a fear of missing out. When we are progressing at the same pace, we don’t mind seeing Jim in accounting get a new car. We are more likely to celebrate with him when we are fuelled by our own progress. Beyond material possession, status anxiety can also occur when we compare other aspects of our lives. For example, a friend getting married to a 'Dream Partner' can trigger a feeling of being left behind and a desire to catch up.

The secret life of Jim from Accounting. Illustration: Sam Kalda

Looking through a wider lens to examine society at large, this subconscious habit of making comparisons spill into how we feel about so many things. What we consider to be our level of wealth and accomplishment is often tied or relative to everyone else we can compare to. This is why when we perform badly in a test, with get over it quickly when there is a widespread failure. 
When economies go through recessions, we feel less guilty for not having a job because we console ourselves that we aren’t alone in this. As expected, in boom times, we are likely to feel more frustrated. In this case, we believe we have been singled out to suffer. 
Existing in a meritocratic society tells us the successful are so because they have worked for it, we feel responsible for our perceived failures because we haven’t worked hard enough.

As with anxiety, there is no pill for status anxiety. A pill in the sense that it makes us this un-anxious human. The best we can do is: 

  •  be aware of it when it rears its head
  • understand it is a function of being human                                                            
  • internalise success; define what it means to you.

It is no licence to consider ourselves immoral people or terrible friends. We are simply worried for our own progress; just like any animal concerned with self-preservation would. While in small doses, it inspires us to do better. Our lives would ultimately be freer when we don't let it linger on for too long.

Want extensive reading? Read Alain De Botton's book: Status Anxiety