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The Under-Appreciated Virtue of Virtual Status

Feeling like the hero in TV, video games, and VR can be good for your health.

Key points

  • People crave more status than the world can afford to provide for everyone.
  • Technology affords people new ways to experience virtual high status–for example, by identifying with heroes on TV or in video games.
  • It pays to think about what status one really wants and needs rather than just going along with the crowd, blindly craving influencer status.

The human race is and isn’t a race. These days, it’s a race against time. We're getting wiser and faster as we adapt to accelerating changes—for example, in response to the climate crisis. To some extent, it’s also a race to thrive in competition with others.

But competition for what? A lot of us treat life as a race for status as though our lives depend on it.

Competition for status has its place. The more status you have, the more money you can make. The more money you can make, the safer you are. If you’re of low status, you’ll spend more time making money and less time enjoying your freedom.

But competition for status can become a counterproductive compulsion consuming the very freedom that is status’s reward. Swept up into status competition, there are people who never stop to enjoy life. That’s a race not worth running.

The pursuit of status is often driven by a fundamental romantic urge that resides in us all, a dream of transcendence, escaping the wear and tear of life, achieving a kind of immortality, a happily ever after that is not in the cards for any of us. Even the geniuses prove to have gotten things wrong. Even the beauty queens fade over time.

In pop culture, we’re presented with two idealizations for what it means to enjoy life. The most popular are the parties of the rich, and famous—excitement, hotties dancing to throbbing music, alcohol in hand, jet-setting revelry at 5-star hotels.

This ideal is presented as the reward for high status. You’ve climbed to the plateau above it all where you will thrive forevermore, perfectly free and perfectly safe. You travel, buy fancy things and party all night. Your status has earned you the freedom to burn, so you burn it, spending like there’s no tomorrow, as if the meaning of life is to burn the most calories and leave the biggest carbon footprint.

The other idealization is wholesome silence in sober contemplation in nature. Nice, but not for everyone.

One is hedonistic; the other is ascetic. But there are other options.

Hedonism is a philosophy associated with its founder Epicurus. “Epicurean” has come to be associated with fancy, high-priced food. Hedonism has come to be associated with the big-spender party-animal lifestyle.

That’s not what Epicurus had in mind. Hedonism was about getting off the status rat-race treadmill and enjoying inexpensive pleasures, more sensually satisfying than the ascetics encourage and less indulgent than the party-animals encourage.

These days, there are a lot of high-tech, low-carbon-footprint simple pleasures to be had. Take watching TV. We still associate the idiot box with unhealthy indulgence. It’s time to rethink that.

TV is now a pinnacle art form. Watching TV, you can see the world often more vividly than you can by joining the hoards of selfie-taking tourists. You can gain wisdom while enjoying escapist entertainment. TV can dumb us down, but it can also wise us up. It’s cheap. Watching TV doesn’t require status, big spending, or a big carbon footprint.

Or take video games, virtual reality, and creating art in the digital world of blogging, podcasting, music-making, and the graphic arts. I think Epicurus would approve of these cheap thrills.

You don’t need much money or status to participate in these. You can role-play, satisfying your quest for status with virtual status, being a “legend in your own mind” in your off-hours, playing the hero in a video game, being a superstar artist, or expressing yourself as a blogging pundit. If it’s good for your soul to self-express, what does it matter how many points, likes, and shares you get? It’s for you.

There are a lot of us now vying for status—more than the world can bear. Virtual status can be a healthy substitute for real status. When you engage in these new high-tech cheap thrills, you can get the benefits of feeling like you have status without all the costs and consequences. You enjoy and deepen your experience of your life. You can feel like a hero or a master of your craft with little effort and a lot of satisfaction.

Here are three tips for managing your appetite for status:

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Don’t be a sheep in shepherd-wannabe clothing. Many of us spend our young years craving status without even wondering why or whether we need it. We seek the status of a shepherd-like influencer like sheep, simply because that’s what everyone wants. We seek trophy partners for the status, forgetting that dating consumes our free time and that partnership is a commitment with lots of constraining obligations. We might even have children for cultural legitimacy. To the extent you can, think for yourself about what matters to you. We’ve each got this short life. Chasing what others want can waste it and trap us in commitments that, in retrospect, we should have known better than to make. That’s costly to those to whom we’ve made our status-seeking commitments. Seek the status you need and want, but try to avoid just saying, “I guess I’ll have what everyone else is having.”

What’s of value changes; try to keep up. The world is changing faster than ever. What was significant just a few years ago is no longer significant. The generations living today are transitional. Our older role models were living by different standards than the ones that apply today or will apply tomorrow. Remember that you’re aiming at fast-moving targets. Try to think ahead and not just to an idealized static state where you’ll have landed snuggly on some permanently high-status plateau.

Explore the new low-cost, low-cal high-tech virtual-status alternatives. They offer us new ways to romance ourselves without demanding that the world romance us too.