Last week, I quoted Alain de Botton’s opening paragraph from his new book ‘Status Anxiety’: “Every life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first-the story of our quest for sexual love—is well known and well charted, its vagaries form the staple of music and literature, it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second—the story of our quest for love from the world—is a more secret and shameful tale. If mentioned, it tends to be in caustic, mocking terms, as something of interest chiefly to envious or deficient souls, or else the drive for status is interpreted in an economic sense alone. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated, important or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful. There is heartbreak here too.”

The quote and indeed the book begs the question, what does love from the world really mean? How do we know when we’ve got it? Pursuit of this love does seem like a basic drive and therefore very important to mind-reading. But what is it?

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


If I had to place bets (and I do all the time) I’d say that the drive for love from the world is best understood as the drive for affirmation. Self-affirmation sure, but far more than that—affirmation for all of the conscious, unconscious, voluntary and involuntary commitments our bodies and minds make.

All creatures are living bets, adaptive guesses at what will work in the world. We happen to be this rare species that not only lives out our bets, but has the foresight to speculate about how our bets are working. Do we fit? Are we the most fit or at least do we fit in alright? An answer in the affirmative— that’s what being loved by the world really means.

I gravitate toward evidence that bodes well for my bets and proves my points—even my unconscious points. I want evidence that keeps doubt and indecision at bay, evidence that means I don’t have to re-evaluate my bets, evidence that implies that I can ignore my assumptions because they’re working.

Maybe this sounds a bit neurotic. We rarely feel the immediate threat of disaffirmation. Most of us feel pretty comfortable most of the time. Maybe that’s because we’ve gotten over ourselves; freed ourselves from the need for affirmation. I suspect it’s rather that our campaigns for affirmation are successful. By gravitating toward affirming work, incomes, friends, identities, thoughts, beliefs, and ideas we wire up our world to love us, to give us enough affirmation that we can relax and forget about it, even forgetting that we need the affirmation. Our drive for affirmation is like our drive for air. As long as there’s enough, we can ignore it.

Unlike air, affirmation is in limited supply. Since we all live out different bets, and not all bets work, we compete for affirmation. Some of the evidence that affirms my bets disaffirm other people’s bets. One man’s embraceable affirming evidence, is another man’s repugnant disaffirming evidence.

Limits are the fascination of all social science. Economics is the study of people’s behavior in competition for limited resources. Politics is the study of people’s behavior in competition for limited power. We sometimes wonder if the limits on resources and power are real. Gandhi said ‘there’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.’ Why then is there greed? Why would anyone want more resources or power than they need?

I’d say for affirmation. Beyond immediate utility so well understood in economics, beyond the limits of all practical appetite, there’s a near-infinite appetite for affirmation. The world could never affirm us so much that we wouldn’t welcome a little more. Especially since as the first feeling, thinking, projecting animal, we’re the first to realize death will come—such an unspeakable, inconceivable disaffirmation that we might spend our lives working to ignore it, to assert and re-assert that the world really does love us even if it kills us.

The economics of affirmation deserves more attention. It does get some however in evolutionary biology. The ever-churning subterranean drive for affirmation is the sound of adaptation in progress. ‘Do I fit?,’ or inversely ‘Does the world love me?’ These are the implicit questions of evolution, as old as life itself, given voice for the first time ever in the heads of the first feeling, thinking, projecting animal, but as de Botton points out, rarely given voice in public.