I remember at university once reading an essay by George Orwell in which he said that after the age of 21 (I was 20 at the time), no one in the "real world" cares whether or not you're nice. What matters is whether you have power or influence (and, in some cases, great beauty). This struck me as so depressing that I tried to delay for ever my entry into the real world - and had a go at becoming an academic instead. I quickly failed at this task (I fell into depression early on, while doing a PhD), and so was forced to go out and experience at first hand what Orwell was talking about.
Then, a few years ago, I started to write a book about an affliction I decided to call "status anxiety". It's not a phrase I'd come across before, but it seemed to capture well enough many of the more awkward feelings that society generates in us. It's status anxiety we're liable to feel when, at a party, someone asks us what we do and then looks bored and impatient with the response, or when a good friend calls up and tells us a piece of what they call "excellent news": they've been promoted or awarded an important prize. Writing the book has had the beneficial effect of allowing me to appreciate in full the genius of Gore Vidal's legendary: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."
To celebrate the launch of my book, my kind publisher suggested a party - and, because of the theme, opted to invite every celebrity he could think of. As a result, I found myself deep in conversation with Jerry Hall, who has recently developed an interest in philosophy. Shortly after my conversation with Hall (which concluded with a broad-ranging discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville's views of envy in the United States as opposed to how it is experienced in Europe), I was approached by a diary journalist who asked me what I was doing launching a book - whose message in a sense is anti-status - amid such a crowd. She quoted a line from my book: "The best way to divest ourselves of people who are not our true friends is to wonder who, among the many acquaintances we have, would bother to make it to our hospital bed." She had a point, but nevertheless I replied: "I believe in intellectuals getting practical, hands-on experience of the subjects they write about - rather than remaining in their isolated studies deriving their ideas only from books. This is a chance to study at first hand the disease I am writing about."
One of the most interesting books I've read in recent years is Choosing the Right Pond, by a rather serious American economist called Robert Frank. He argues that we tend to miss an important subtlety in our attempts to become rich. Frank starts by insisting that being wealthy isn't a matter of reaching some abstract sum of money; it's all about having slightly more money than have the sort of people with whom you surround yourself. We are inherently comparative creatures: we feel rich not in isolation, but by looking at what our neighbours have. Only this explains how ungrateful we tend to be about how much better off we are than people a few generations ago. We go on foreign holidays, own cars, have broadband, but we tend not to feel richer - and the reason is that almost no one compares themselves with their great-great-grandparents (mine sold carpets and embroidered cushions in Izmir). We compare ourselves with our friends and peers. These are the people who give us our guides to what constitutes poverty or wealth. Frank cleverly builds on this piece of psychology by suggesting that the most effective way to feel wealthy is to distance ourselves - practically and emotionally - from anyone whom we consider to be our equal and who has become richer than we. In plain language, the best way to feel rich is to change all our friends, removing anyone who has had the impudence to do better than us. Once we have created a watertight network of rather depressed, failing friends, we will forever be congratulating ourselves on our own achievements.
That said, if we really want to achieve inner serenity, we will also have to stop reading almost all newspapers and magazines (this one excluded). Max Weber wisely observed that in modern western societies, the ritual of reading the newspaper has replaced that of praying and going to church. Just as priests often made their congregations feel inadequate for all that they had not achieved in the spiritual realm, so too newspapers are inclined to make people feel inadequate for all they have not achieved in the material realm. It is rare to be able to finish a pile of Sunday papers without a strange lethargy and sadness descending: they are filled with an extraordinary number of reminders of more successful lives. All this is really the problem of modernity: in so far as advanced societies provide us with historically elevated incomes, they appear to make us richer. But in truth, the net effect of these societies may be to impoverish us because they keep open a permanent gap between what we want and what we can afford, who we are and who we might be. I've now cracked the problem by reading the Sunday papers on Monday morning, very quickly, with one eye shut - like Ulysses tied to the mast of his ship on his way past the Sirens.
Status Anxiety is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). The TV programme of the same name is broadcast on Channel 4, Saturday 6 March, 7-9pm