Samara O'Shea

Restless in the Midst of Prosperity

A compelling excerpt from the book Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton:

“Touring the young United States in the 1830s, the French lawyer and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, discerned an unexpected ill corroding the souls of the citizens of the new republic. Americans had much, he observed, but their affluence did not prevent them from wanting ever more or from suffering whenever they saw that another had something they themselves didn’t. In a chapter of Democracy in America (1835) entitled ‘Why the Americans Are Often So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity’, he provided an enduring analysis of the relationships between dissatisfaction and high expectation, between envy and equality:

‘When all prerogatives of birth and fortune have been abolished, when every profession is open to everyone … an ambitious man may think it is easy to launch himself on a great career and feel that he has been called to no common destiny. But this is a delusion which experience quickly corrects. When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed … That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them even in calm and easy circumstances. In France, we are worried about increasing rate of suicides. In America, suicide is rare, but I am told that madness is commoner than anywhere else.'”