You might think you go on holiday to be treated like royalty. But Alain de Botton argues that true happiness only comes in realising how insignificant we really are

It's sometimes easy to think that the fierce class divisions that once dominated British life have been overcome. Nowadays, most of us tend to buy the same sort of clothes, eat the same kind of food and talk in accents that don't neatly betray membership of any particular socio-economic group. But there is one area of life which remains stubbornly, defiantly status-bound, an area where we are immediately and often brutally reminded of just which bracket we belong to: travel.

It's sometimes easy to think that the fierce class divisions that once dominated British life have been overcome. Nowadays, most of us tend to buy the same sort of clothes, eat the same kind of food and talk in accents that don't neatly betray membership of any particular socio-economic group. But there is one area of life which remains stubbornly, defiantly status-bound, an area where we are immediately and often brutally reminded of just which bracket we belong to: travel.

Marxist language may be on the wane, but airlines refer unambiguously to the existence of "classes" - each with its allotted privileges and hardships. One might argue that rank permeates travel to an extent unprecedented in other areas of life. It is through the prism of travel that we are particularly well-placed to observe the infinitely subtle workings of the status system.

Sociologists have observed that we work hard and try to achieve for two reasons: money and status. Status is perhaps the more interesting of the two motivations, for it is rooted in our emotional lives. The word status, deriving from the Latin statum, refers in a narrow sense to one's legal or professional standing within a group (ie married, a lieutenant, etc), but in the broader - and here more relevant - sense, it alludes to one's value and importance in the eyes of the world. One could say that we seek status because we want to feel "loved"; increasingly, travel firms strive as much to show us that we are loved, as to offer a more comfortable material experience.

How might the word "love", generally used only in relation to what we would want from a parent or a romantic partner, be applied to something we might want from and be offered by the travel industry? Perhaps we could define love, in its familial, sexual and travelling forms, as a kind of respect - a sensitivity by one person to another's existence. When we feel this love our presence is noted; our name registered; our views acknowledged; our needs met. And under such care, we flourish.

There may be differences between the romantic and status forms of love - the latter has no sexual dimension, it cannot end in marriage and those who offer it usually bear secondary motives - and yet the beloved in the status field will, just like romantic lovers, enjoy comfort under the benevolent gaze of others.

It is common to describe a person who holds an important position in society as a "somebody" and their inverse as a "nobody" - nonsensical terms, for we are all by necessity individuals with identities and equal claims on existence. But such words are apt in conveying the variations in the quality of treatment meted out to different groups of travellers. Those without status remain unseen, they are treated brusquely and are made to queue for hours.

By contrast, what separates British Airways World Traveller from the World Traveller Plus cabin has little to do with material benefits, and much to do with signs of love. The cabin staff are a little more attentive; the trays are not thrown down onto the tables but gently lowered; there are heated towels and a few more magazines.

Hotels, too, are aware of how much they can seduce their customers by appeasing their status anxieties rather than by making them materially more comfortable. Chocolates on the pillow at night, a polite manner at the reception desk, a bowl of fruit on arrival: these things do not cost much and make very little difference to one's physical well-being, but they have a vital role to play in making us feel valued and important. Far from home, on another continent, lonely and jet-lagged, we are liable to respond with childish gratitude to someone who manages to get our name right and lays down a chocolate for us on the bed to help send us to sleep.

No wonder the travel industry spends so much money sending staff on training courses to remind them to treat their customers with "love", for nothing more quickly ruins a stay in a hotel, or a journey with an airline, than the kind of rudeness that concierges and cabin staff occasionally excel at. To listen to the complaints of travellers, what often irks isn't so much the hiccup itself but the way it ispresented - usually with an insolent stare and an infuriating shrug of the shoulders.

Ideally, we wouldn't care so much about how we are treated. It wouldn't make any difference whether the man at the car rental desk was surly or polite in handing us the keys, and whether the maid barged into our room or knocked sweetly. Unfortunately though, how we feel about ourselves depends to a large degree on how others seem to feel about us.

The world's politeness promotes a feeling of being valuable. Our "ego" or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring external love to remain inflated and vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect. There is something sobering and absurd in the extent to which we are cheered by the attentions of others and damaged by their disregard. Our mood may blacken because a waiter has greeted us distractedly and our calls to the front desk have been left unanswered. And we are capable of finding life worth living because someone has remembered our name and sent us a fruit basket.

It is often observed that our ability to be satisfied with certain kinds of travel experience keeps diminishing because our expectation of what constitutes "a good holiday" keeps being raised. Our grandparents knew how to be happy with a week away in a modest resort by the sea, where they would be served bad food, sleep in institutional bungalows and spend their evenings forcing themselves to laugh at the offerings of fifth-rate comedians.

But nowadays the travel status race means that we are liable to consider ourselves severely lacking if we do not manage to take at least three foreign holidays a year; if we have never gone skiing or on a safari; if we don't know Thailand and Bondi beach; if we don't have a favourite restaurant in Athens or don't know our way around the back streets of San Francisco. The kind of holidays that would have been inconceivable a few decades ago are now consumed routinely and with little apparent appreciation. The paradox is that modern travellers, blessed with choices far outstripping those imaginable by their ancestors, demonstrate a remarkable capacity to feel dissatisfied with their lot.

These feelings of deprivation may not look so peculiar once we consider the psychology behind the way we quantify satisfaction. Our sense of an appropriate level for anything - the quality of a hotel room or timeshare apartment, for example - is never decided independently. It is based on a comparing our condition with that of a reference group of people we consider to be our equals.

We cannot appreciate what we have in isolation, or judge it against the lives of our grandparents. We cannot be impressed by how smart our holidays are in historical terms. We will take ourselves to be fortunate only when we have as much as, or more than, the people we grow up with, work alongside, have as friends and identify with in the public realm.

If everyone we know is allowed only to take a week of holiday off a year and spends it in draughty bungalows by a concrete shoreline, then such holidays will seem normal - far from glamorous perhaps, but not fertile ground for a sense of envy or aspiration. But if we are used to taking an annual break in a clean and friendly three-star French hotel, but learn through ill-advised attendance at a school reunion that some of our old friends (there is no stronger reference group) are now the proud owners of farmhouses in the Dordogne, we may never again revisit our French hotel without a violent sense of misfortune.

The psychologist William James once wrote a fascinating essay on happiness and possessions. He explained that humiliation does not always result from not having things, but is more commonly the result of wanting something to boost our sense of worth only to find that we can't afford it. Our aspirations determine what we will interpret as "luxury" and "normal".

What we understand to be normal is therefore critical in determining our chance of travelling happily. Few things rival the torment of the person who once tasted the pleasures of First Class travel, and is now - because of some fall in status - relegated to economy.

We are frequently made aware of the status side of travel when encountering the "travel snob": that uncomfortable character who seems to place vast importance on where and how people travel, someone who may turn away from us if we reveal that we've been camping this year and have no idea what an Aman hotel is.

The word "snobbery" came into use for the first time in England during the 1820s. It was said to have derived from the habit of many Oxford and Cambridge colleges of writing sine nobilitate (without nobility) or "s.nob" next to the names of ordinary students on examination lists in order to distinguish them from their aristocratic peers. In the word's earliest days, a snob was someone without high status, but it quickly assumed its modern and almost diametrically opposed meaning: someone offended by a lack of high status in others. The distinctive mark of the travel snob is an insistence on a flawless equation between how special you are and where you travel to.

The company of travel snobs has the power to enrage and unnerve because we sense how little our true personality will be able to govern their behaviour towards us. We may be endowed with the wisdom of Solomon and have the resourcefulness and intelligence of Odysseus, but if we are unable to wield the socially-recognised badges of our travel destinations, our existence will remain a matter of raw indifference to them.

Of course, it is always tempting to laugh at those afflicted by urgent cravings for status symbols. We mock those who vaunt the top hotels they have visited, but before ridiculing these types it would perhaps be fairer to wonder about the wider context in which their "showing off" takes place. Rather than teasing the buyers, we may blame the society in which they live for establishing a situation where respect has become dependent on a Babylonian lifestyle. Rather than a tale of greed, the history of manic addiction to luxury could more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma.

For many of us, travelling is a chance to get away from worries about status. By leaving behind our offices and homes, we can rediscover a part of ourselves that isn't concerned with the pecking order.

It's partly for this reason that the prospect of a holiday is liable to persuade even the most downcast person that life is worth living. Aside from love, few events are anticipated more eagerly, nor form the subject of more complex or enriching reveries, than holidays. They offer us perhaps our best chance of achieving happiness - the way that we choose to spend them embodies, if only unwittingly, an understanding of what life might ideally be about. During the long working weeks, we can be sustained by our dreams of going somewhere else, somewhere far from home, a place with better weather, more interesting customs and inspiring landscapes - and where it seems we stand a chance of finally being happy.

Unfortunately the reality of travel seldom matches the daydreams. One reason stems from the perplexing fact that when we look at pictures of places we want to go and see (and imagine how happy we would be if only we were there), we are prone to forget one crucial thing: that we will have to take ourselves along with us. That is, we won't just be in India/South Africa/Australia/Prague/Peru in a direct, unmediated way, we'll be there with ourselves, still imprisoned in our own bodies and minds.

I remember a trip to Normandy a few years ago. I looked forward to it for months, I anticipated a beautiful hotel on the beach (as pictured in a glossy brochure called France for Fun). Unfortunately, I found I had brought something along that risked clouding my appreciation of my surroundings: my entire mind. I was travelling not only with the aesthetic lobe that had planned the journey and agreed to pay for it, but also with the part committed to anxiety, boredom, melancholy, self-disgust and financial alarm.

At home, as my eyes had panned over the photographs of Normandy, I had felt oblivious to anything besides their contents. I had simply been in the pictures, at one with their elements. I had imagined an agenda-less, neutral observer; pure consciousness. But worries, regrets, memories and anticipations were to prove constant companions on the Normandy trip, acting like panes of distorting glass between my self and the world.

On the first morning, for several hours, during a swim in a bay followed by a rest on the sand, I no longer saw my location for I was blinded by a catastrophic anticipation of my professional future. In one scenario, an editor to whom I was beholden became so intransigent in his attitude towards my employment ("I'm not a charity, am I?", he asked), that when I was tapped lightly on the shoulder by my wife and asked whether I might like a towel, I narrowly avoided answering, with tears in my eyes: "Please take pity on me."

Even when undistracted by anxieties, anticipations of the future diverted me from a sincere involvement with the present. From home, I had imagined that my journey would immerse me in a handful of immobile (and contented) moments, but in reality, my mind could not rest at any single point, however pleasing, without turning to ask: "What next?"

This said, there are certain kinds of trips that may once and for all cure anxieties about status. I'm thinking of those journeys we make to parts of the world like deserts, glaciers, oceans and rain forests, that are so huge and impressive that they put into perspective all the day-to-day worries about our standing. A fine remedy for all our anxieties about our insignificance may be to travel through the gigantic spaces of the world.

For example, deserts (I'm imagining a trip I once made to the Egyptian desert around Aswan) speak of the folly of giving up our peace of mind for the unstable rewards of earthly power. In beholding the ruined palaces of the Egyptian pharaohs we may feel our anxieties about our achievements - or lack of them - slacken. What will it matter if we have not succeeded in the eyes of others, if there are no monuments or processions in our honour and if no one smiled at us at the reception desk of the hotel? Judged against eternity, how little of what agitates us can matter.

Big open spaces bid us to surrender our strivings and our images of perfection and fulfilment. They remind us that we cannot defy time and that we are the playthings of forces of destruction which can at best be kept at bay but never vanquished. We may enjoy local victories, a few years in which we are able to impose a degree of order upon the chaos, but everything is ultimately fated to crumble back into dust. If this prospect has a power to console, it is perhaps because the greater part of our anxieties stems from an exaggerated sense of the importance of our projects and concerns. We are tortured by our ideals, and by a punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing.

Whatever differences exist between people, they are nothing next to the differences between the most powerful humans and the great deserts, high mountains, glaciers and oceans of the world. There are natural phenomena so large as to make the variations between any two people seem mockingly small. By spending time in vast spaces, a sense of our insignificance in the social hierarchy can be subsumed in a consoling sense of the insignificance of all humans within the cosmos. We can overcome a feeling of unimportance not by making ourselves more important but by recognizing the relative unimportance of everyone. Our concern with who is a few millimetres taller than us or better off than us can give way to an awe for things a thousand million times larger than us.

Alain de Botton's new book is 'Status Anxiety' (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99); his programme of the same name is on Channel 4 at 7pm today. He is also the author of 'The Art of Travel'.