Status anxiety comes from the fear of what people think of us and of not looking as good as them.
Status is a natural human need. The problem is that the nature of status has changed as society has changed. Prior to the capitalist revolution people were born with the status they would have for their whole lives. If you were royalty you would stay royalty, if you were landed gentry you would stay landed gentry and if you were a peasant you would stay a peasant. There were the odd exceptions but not many.
We live in much more egalitarian societies. People who live in capitalist democracies are free to ‘make good’. One problem is that for too many people making good means having a lot of material wealth (that being the case they aren’t trying to ‘make good’ they are trying to ‘make bad’).
Envy and rivalry are hardwired into people. It is human nature to want to compete and ‘look good’ to the world, especially those near to us – family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. From an evolutionary point of view these were good traits because they helped secure the best mate. We have evolved though, it is possible for us to see the flaws and limits of our traits and, crucially, we have the power to control them.
People often show off through conspicuous consumption. Big houses, flash cars, designer brands and endless pairs of new shoes tells the world that you have ‘made good’.
Making and having material wealth does not signal real status though. It is what you do, not what you have, that assigns status. People can become wealthy by doing worthy things and people become wealthy doing destructive, sometimes criminal, things. Drug dealers, paedophiles and bad parents can have flash cars and designer shoes. Even if you are the best at being bad, you are still bad.
There is peace and dignity in being content with what you have. Having more than enough is simply a waste and well-being can never come to someone who has insatiable extrinsic desires. That is because the existential hunger they are trying to sate is intrinsic. Well-being comes from the intrinsic rewards associated with fulfilling our potential to be the best person we can be.
Who has status anxiety? Is it the person in the big house or the person in the small house?