Status Anxiety

Posted on: 2023-01-24 - Fixed link

Status Anxiety (2004)

I enjoyed this documentary a lot. It brought up a variety of ideas, touched upon in other documentaries, but brought together in a more coherent and solid manner. It makes a compelling case about the issues around status and the history that has led us to our current status anxiety. It's worth adding, given the subject matter, it's all surprisingly entertaining. The scenes with the restaurant manager wanting to be a talk show host feel like something from Louis Theroux's Weird Weekend.


Early in the documentary an equation of "self worth" is discussed:

Self worth = Achievements / Expectations

There are two implications of this

Self worth isn't some ethereal concept, other studies have shown having self worth is one of the key ingredients to happiness.

Depending on your situation and what you are trying to achieve, success could be straight forward, simple even. For example "achievements" could be handed to you. Alternatively they could be exceptionally hard or practically impossible. The idea that we can all be who we want to be is a compelling. The reality is that there is a huge variability in how difficult it will be, if possible at all. It also doesn't take into account luck and random opportunity that plays a larger part in most peoples life than many would care to admit.

Modern society claims to be a meritocracy. In a meritocratic society the implication is that everybody is basically correctly ordered. The people at the top made it there because of their merit. Which implies the opposite, although not typically directly articulated, which is that if you are at the bottom it is because you lack merit. You deserve to be at the bottom.

In the documentary Alain interviews a preacher of prosperity gospel. In his preachings and the interview he talks alot about money and how God "wants you to be rich". That's not a metaphor, he is telling his congragation that they should aspire to money. In the interview when asked if someone is wealthy does that mean God approves of them - they are virtuous in Gods eyes? He agrees. Later the opposite is asked - doesn't that mean if you are poor you aren't virtuous? The preacher denies this, saying he never said that, and you can be poor and good. Which contradicts the previous assertion. This of course flys in the face of Christianity - with Jesus being a poor carpenter, and preaching the virtues of being good to one another and the vice of wealth. It is explained away as Jesus was "rich", but gave up all of his wealth so we can be wealthy. Clearly that doesn't make a lot of sense contrasted with his teachings.

Modern meritocracy is compared to previous human history where there has been a more rigid order. Kings at the top and peasants at the bottom. A peasants life can be tough and monotonous. They could see life as a kind of twisted game of suffering. Paradoxically though they do have a key benefit, they do not have to blame themselves for the situation. Moreover in such a society it's obvious you can be virtuous and poor. In such a society your expectations are likely low, and so your self worth, comparitively high.

There is a lot of time devoted to the bohemians, which he takes in the wide sense of punks to hippies. The reason for the prominance is that they encapsulate groups of people rejecting the orthadoxy of status and embracing something else. Doing so they have brought many benefits to society. On the other hand the act rebellion can lead to some odd places - the example given is of a bohemian who ended up walking a lobster.

Towards the end there is a discussion around death. How the finality of death brings clarity to life. In the face of death status anxiety seems insignificant. It encourages one to think less about what other people think, after all they will not have to do the dying for us. The prospect of death can encourage us to focus on what is most important in life. There is a discussion around vanitas paintings

A vanitas painting is a particular style of still life that was immensely popular in the Netherlands beginning in the 17th century. The style often includes with worldly objects such as books and wine and you will find quite a few skulls on the still life table. Its intent is to remind viewers of their own mortality and the futility of worldly pursuits.


In discussion with Mary, who ran the London Opera House, and was diagnosed with cancer:

Mary: It makes you reassess almost everything instantly and overnight.

Mary: I assumed that time if not infinite, there was a reasonable amount of it.

Alain: What started to matter less?

Mary: Work, work, work... Suddenly work has the status of nothing but providing money in order to live.

Alain: Did your concerns about status change?

Mary: Oh yes, they vanished. It's irrelevant really.

I can't leave out this later quote

In contrast to what an optimistic mind set tells us, everything will in fact turn out for the worse. We will die. Our achievements forgotton. Everything we have strived for will be ignored.

The point of this observation is as a kind of release from the worry and anxiety around status. To encourage us to find our own meaning in how we spend our life, and not how others may or may not view it.

The end of the documentary focuses on the importance of connections to people.

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