How can we judge how we are doing in life? Most people look to society as a guage. For example, we might look to our pay and our prestige at work to determine what we’re worth. But in an economic crisis, prices gyrate, jobs evaporate, and home values drift down. Amid such wrenching changes, many of us are flailing about mentally to know where we stand and how we stack up. How can we tell what really matters?  

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Many gauge their life success and self-worth based on how their peers are doing. A recent psychology paper is subtitled: “Rank of Income, Not Income, Affects Life Satisfaction.” The paper found that on average, most people’s life satisfaction was correlated with the rank of their position compared with their social peers. One of the authors, Chris Boyce of the University of Warwick, remarked: “Earning a million pounds a year appears to be not enough to make you happy if you know your friends all earn two million a year.”

Social comparisons aren’t just financial. In another line of research, economists Mary Daly and Daniel Wilson at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco have been looking at suicide as a measure of how happy people are. (People who commit suicide are extremely unhappy,in other words.) They’ve found that relative social status is a major explanatory factor for suicide. They report a strange-seeming “paradox”: in the U.S., communities that report higher life happiness on average also tend to have higher suicide rates. Does living in a happy town make you want to kill yourself? Apparently, when many people feel low, seeing others doing well around them tends to dig the knife of misery in more sharply.

I know a young woman, now living a happy life, who once tried to kill herself. At the time, she was attending the same college I went to, a place where I, and many of my friends, had truly blossomed. I’m not sure what in fact drove her thoughts over the edge. But maybe, at root, it was being around so many thriving peers. Maybe it was going from being the star of a mediocre public school to being a mediocre student at a top private college. Daly’s and Wilson’s research results suggest that it may have been the combination of the two that made her feel so down on herself.

Are We All Social Metaphysicians?

This research points to a big problem in society. Too many people are basing too much of their self-assessment on their relative social standing. And too many are judging themselves as worthy only if others assent. They are prioritizing the values of others, while ignoring their own values.

In the early days of the Objectivist movement, Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden often criticized “social metaphysics,” i.e., the privileging of others’ opinions over reality as the ultimate arbiter of truth and value. Whatever the worth of that term as a psychological diagnosis, the truth is, we are each individuals. We live our own lives, happy or unhappy in ourselves. The bottom line lies in our own lives as they really are, not in how others think of us. One needn’t hang on the judgment of others to obsess about one’s social status, but if one does rely on social metaphysics, then the only standards of value one can appeal to will be inherently social.

To make matters worse, some theorists argue that we can’t help being social metaphysicians. Philosophical essayist Alain de Botton expresses this view with style in Status Anxiety, a book that anyone interested in these issues could read with profit. De Botton imagines that we are as much self-doubters as self-praisers. When we interact, the attention we get from others—be it positive or negative—reinforces our internal self-criticisms or self-praise. It is the input from others that makes the difference. In de Botton’s view, it is human psychology that makes us focus so furiously on how we stand vis-à-vis our peers.

De Botton understands that “we are all, by necessity, individuals with distinct identities and claims on existence.” So he is concerned that we not be enslaved to public opinion by our nature. In the bulk of Status Anxiety, he explores a range of ways a social metaphysician might try to wriggle free.

In a section entitled “Bohemia,” de Botton suggests dropping out and joining a counter-culture as a way to make your peers reaffirm the way you are. No one’s a freak to the freaks, man. It’s good advice, in fact, to seek out others who live by the right values. Still, figuring out what the right values are takes precedence. It does no good for a drunkard to hang out with other heavy drinkers, despite the apparent bonhomie as they raise their glasses to each other.

Another suggested cure involves using art to re-imagine society with one’s own preferences valorized. In my kind of art, my kind of person wins out (or I am the kind who wins out). This is true, but again, the question of which preferences are objectively valid has to be answered first. We are left wondering what really matters.

Most of de Botton’s cures involve resolving to mentally re-evaluate the status of others. For example, he suggests perhaps taking on a philosophical sense of superiority, looking down on others as unenlightened fools. But most people aren’t fools. And would it affect your value as an individual if they were?

In a related vein, de Botton argues for the shock cure of facing up to the grand scheme of things: life is brief, the universe is huge, and all is vanity. But the universe as a whole isn’t living your life. Burying oneself in the grand scheme of things is a kind of quest for the permanent, a search for something much larger than oneself, and more lasting, to rely on. Such a quest usually leads to a self-abnegating religious attitude. It can also lead to affirmative secular equivalents of the permanent such as immersion in one’s community or devotion to environmentalism. In these cases, the cure is of a piece with the disease. It says you don’t matter, but others do (be they human or imagined). Mystic metaphysics as a cure for social metaphysics? I don’t think so.

Who is the Measure of You?

De Botton portrays human psychology as a hopeless mess of self-justifying and self-denigrating rationalizations. That’s why he thinks we must hang on the words of others. But in fact, it is possible to reason with reality as your guide. There’s a difference between the truth and a rationalization.

If we are to be happy, we need a robust self-esteem to motivate us and carry us through difficult times. And we need to pursue objective values, ones we will actually benefit from. What else will carry you through if you’ve lost your job, or your spouse has left you, or you’ve had a tragedy in the family? It will be your inner flame, and your ability to do what’s needed.

“What do I really want?” This is the question we have to answer to make our choices in life. Do I want to live in the big city or the small town? Do I want a take-charge job, independent work, or a way to play a productive role in a team? Do I want a big house or a cozy apartment, a long commute or a short one? Do I want kids, and if so how many? Do I want to do art, or science, or craftwork, or provide a social service? And more specifically, we have to know what styles, prices, and levels of quality we need in the products we buy. We have to judge our social relations by the same coin, based on how they benefit us.

Underlying these judgments is the answer to a deeper question: “What can I do?” You can’t judge what to do, without knowing what you really can do. Especially in times of difficulty, it’s vital to know whether one is over-stretched or not stretching enough, and whether one is neglecting one’s talents or beating oneself up pointlessly.

But how are we to answer these questions about ourselves? It is clear we cannot just rely on the opinions of others. Why would their opinions count more than the truth?

Even if we need not be social metaphysicians, it is hard to find a standard for judging ourselves that is not essentially social. We still have an epistemological problem, not just a psychological one. The problem isn’t just that we are social animals, with inborn capacities to focus on others’ faces and attract their aid with tears. It’s that any intelligent being, of any species, would have trouble knowing himself merely from his own example. Others create fantastic inventions, artworks, and institutions that show us what can be possible for man. How do you know we ought to be able to fly to the moon and beyond? How do you know that a book can make you cry, or think?

When we look at ourselves, we end up asking what “a person like me” can do. But where can we find the histories and capabilities of people like us? Well, from our peers. From the Joneses.

It cannot be emphasized enough: people like you do not live your life. You do. Other people on average may be heroes or fools, but you are not them.

Therefore, it is imperative to always bring our focus back on our own values and abilities. The lives of others provide a hypothesis for what we could enjoy or could succeed at. But in every case, the testing of that claim is in what works for each of us, and what we in fact enjoy.

Relying on the Real

So I think the right way of viewing others must be radically individualistic, and it must fundamentally affirm the value of one’s own life. Think of it as “Roarking,” after Howard Roark, the supremely self-directed hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

When asked by arch-manipulator Ellsworth Toohey “What do you think of me?” Roark replies: “But I don’t think of you.” When we get right down to it, that is just how we should regard the example of others. It’s just not about them.

Of course, Roark could not literally blank Toohey out: he was talking to Toohey right then, after all. Furthermore, even the independent-minded Roark wondered about social phenomena and knew the history of art and architecture, so he must have pondered people like Toohey from time to time. As I envision it, “Roarking” isn’t shutting off your mind, but choosing where to direct your attention. It can do a lot of good for one’s anxieties, even status anxieties, to stop chewing them over and focus instead on what really matters, i.e., reality and ourselves.

We can do this, despite the fact that we are enmeshed in a social web and depend on the example of others to learn about ourselves.

We go through a spiral of learning from others and about ourselves as we grow up and mature. When we are children, others teach us and inform us with their expectations. But we find out what we can do and what we like to do ourselves. Others provide us with ideas and examples. They offer, in effect, a menu we can choose from. But we choose from the menu, or create our own ideas for options, as we forge our own path. As adults, we see the example of others like us, our old classmates perhaps, or people in the same line of work, or in the same town or neighborhood. And we hear from all over the world and throughout history of what great or foul deeds others have been able to accomplish. But it is up to us to assess those examples and proceed on our terms.

In the division of labor, most people work for a pay rate set, in the immediate instance, by their employers. If you’re not an entrepreneur, you don’t directly set your own wage. We have to take that back, psychologically. We can’t let our employer determine our sense of our own worth. Rather, it is our skills and our ability to produce that determines our worth as far as work goes.

We have to remind ourselves, too, of what our values really mean to us. I have a friend whose house is better than mine. I have a lovely old house with many interesting and useful features, and it fits into my family’s budget without great strain. I spent several years searching around my city before finding this house, so I am pretty sure, given all the local options, I chose the best one for me. Still, when I come home from visiting my friend, the contrast with his bigger and more elegant house makes mine seem tawdrier than it really is. So, to put myself back on my own feet, I remind myself of the context of my own decisions. I have to recall what I learned about the market searching for the house I now have. I have to remember what I use a house for. I have to think back through the series of choices that would be required to give me a house like my friend’s. I remember why I live as I do: I’m me, not him.

In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark always understands what he is doing with his time. If he is working for a client, he knows he chose that client, and why. If he is with his lover, or not, he knows why, and whether it needs to be this way.

This is the Roarkian attitude we need. We need to recall why we have made the choices we have. And on that basis, we can look forward to the future as a range of possibilities. We can explore those possibilities, but always on the basis of who we really are, what we really need, and what we, ourselves, living our own lives, can really do. The mere fact that others live as they do is not, in the end, our concern. It’s not about keeping up with anyone. It’s about being ambitious for ourselves.

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