on 27 July 2004
Why doesn't money (usually) buy happiness? Alain de Botton breaks new ground for most of us, offering reasons for something our grandparents may well have told us, as children.
It is rare, and pleasing, to see a substantial philosophical argument sustained as well as it is in this DVD. De Botton claims that we are more anxious about our own importance and achievements than our grandparents were. This is 'status anxiety'.
Alain quotes philosophical writings, such as 'Democracy in America', a report by Alexis de Tocqueville on his visit to the USA in 1831. De Tocqueville noted that American equality, notable in those times, was accompanied by a climate of envy.
We jump to present-day USA, and see what, to me - and obviously to de Botton, are some awful examples of 'The American Way'. A Christian preaches 'get rich'. A steelworker tells of his insecure life in an industry being closed down through others' love of money.
Our protagonist points out the advantage of high status: those with high status will enjoy the care and attention of the world. Then joins this advantage with the illusion, or 'attempt' at meritocracy in the USA, mentioning Jefferson's notion of 'an aristocracy of talent'.
Then the real 'rub' of meritocracy: there is always someone with more status than ourselves. Which makes us unable to achieve satisfaction, at least, whilever we care a fig for meritocracy.
The weaker part of the presentation begins when de Botton announces (to the television audience) that 'Next week, we're going to look at solutions' to this unfortunate by-product of meritocracy.
We visit a 'Bohemian' household, in the English countryside, where 'you come to share, not to take', and a nude camp, where outward signs of status almost dissappear, to the joy of all.
We see an amazing recreation of an ancient Egyptian custom in present-day England... but I mustn't give away this surprise ending!
By the end of the programme, de Botton has laid out his case well. He links our wish for the care and attention of others, to status seeking as a means to this end. He identifies meritocracy as especially developed in the USA. (He does not give the full reason, that riches could be had by able and ruthless people taking land and other resources from the indigenous peoples - especially if they did not pay taxes to England - or anywhere!)
And he links meritocracy to its consequence: status anxiety for all.
To me, someone working to imagine, define and create a more satisfying lifestyle which everyone could follow, de Botton has made a valuable contribution.
I wholeheartedly recommend this DVD to anyone who wishes to understand, and even perhaps reverse, the dissatisfaction of so many Westerners with their more of less affluent lifestyles.