Jewish Journal

Society: Obsessed with Prestige, Interfering with Happiness

by Nicole Behnam

December 12, 2011 | 3:24 am

“Greatness is not found in possessions, power, position, or prestige. It is discovered in goodness, humility, service, and character.”
-William Arthur Ward

Let’s be real here. You belong to a community. In fact, you probably belong to many communities that have formulated through several social interactions with the same people. If you are a parent, for example, you maintain social ties with other parents whose children attend the same school as your own kids—and then you have separate sets of friends; friends from work, from high school, from childhood, from temple, et al.

You maintain fervent opinions about each and every person, but refer to them in terms of what is most commonly acknowledged. Daniel is an oncologist, Janet is a pediatrician, Marcy is an entertainment lawyer, Simon is a friendly person, and Steve, along with his wife Jennifer, have two beautiful children.

Because most of the conversations we have with friends are superficial and “on the surface”—meaning they don’t penetrate into the depths of our lives—we have been trained, as a society, to talk about who we are in terms of what we do and what we have achieved.

The frequency of family parties, religious celebrations, dinners, and other functions coupled with a tangled web of business associations, leads to an imbedded desire to prove ourselves as worthy of belonging to the upper echelons of society—to always and forever be relevant in the eyes of others. In fact, this seems like a necessity for some people.

I have seen the woman who anxiously tries to win the approval of everyone she congregates with. She wears the latest Prada handbag one day, and the latest Fendi handbag the next. Her children do fairly well in school, but she scrutinizes them when they don’t win awards or competitions.

Her temper is out of control but she ensures that her husband donates over $5000 to her local temple, because her family name has to be on the Donor’s List plaque, not because she genuinely cares. Social encounters are a den of comparison during which she is actively evaluating people. When friends arrive, her smile always masks the sense of inferiority she feels. She denies any shortcomings. How is she? Each time, “great thanks, and you?” She wants to be perfect. She is obsessed with prestige.

At some point, this becomes problematic. At some point, society needs to draw the line between actual greatness and prestige. At some point, it is not worth it to kill ourselves in the hopes of being held to a high regard by our friends. It is worth everything in the world, though, to defy this mentality, and to achieve for the sake of achievement.

In her book, The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand writes:

Listen to what is being preached today. Look at everyone around us. You’ve wondered why they suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men.

He’s not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion—prestige. A stamp of approval. Not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded. He can’t say about a single thing: “This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me.” Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.

She continues:

Every form of happiness is private. Our greatest moments are personal, self-motivated, not to be touched. Those things which are sacred or precious to us are the things we withdraw from promiscuous sharing. But now we are taught to throw everything within us into public light and common pawing.

My belief is that we can undo what has been taught to us by society—by this particular type of society. If winning the praise and admiration of others is the only driving force behind our actions, we will never be happy. A man will never be happy, for example, if he goes to medical school merely to please his parents, to be able to say to his uncle, “I am a doctor.” If medicine is not his true passion, this achievement means nothing.

But once we recognize this fault in ourselves, we can appraise ourselves for who we are, not through society’s calculated criteria or expectations of us. We can begin to live for ourselves, to learn for the sake of learning, not for the sake of knowing, to laugh uninhibited, not just to act in accordance with social cues, and to succeed for the sake of self-esteem and advancement, not for a pat on the back.

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When Nicole Behnam was 15, she joined the school newspaper and discovered that journalism was one of her passions. To take her passion one step further, she called Brentwood...

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