Studies show that it’s stressful to be the least successful person in your reference group. You don’t want to be the worst performer at work, the weakest member of your sports team, the least successful person at your class reunion, and so on.
My guess is that status-related stress is becoming more of a problem than at any time in human history because the media is changing our reference group. We’re continuously bombarded with stories about people who are fabulously successful. It’s hard to watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and feel as if your own career is a raging success. And I’ll bet most of you know Steve Jobs was worth $7 billion when he passed.
Stress is obviously bad for you. It makes you unhappy in the short run, and it leads to health issues later. Stress probably holds back your career, too. I would think that people who project a relaxed and confident vibe are generally more successful at work.
On the other end of this phenomenon, there’s a risk that kids are getting too much self-esteem. These days, every kid gets a trophy just for participating. Some observers think this isn’t good preparation for real life.
Your first reaction might be to assume nothing can be done to fix status-related stress. In adult life, success is almost always distributed unevenly. But maybe there’s a way to program our perceptions of success in a healthy way without altering the underlying reality.
I’ve always felt that the best balance for happiness is to make sure you’re near the top of at least one reference group in your life. In other words, be great at one thing, even if it’s just a hobby. Any type of success can provide a psychological safe harbor when everything else goes to hell. And success breeds confidence that can help you power through the harder challenges.
I was thinking of this in the context of our nation’s unemployment issues. For the most part, our unemployed and underemployed citizens aren’t literally starving, and most have shelter. But their stress levels are presumably high, both for practical reasons (paying the rent), and for psychological reasons (status).
Interestingly, the Occupy Wall Street protests provide a means to change the reference group for these folks and perhaps accomplish something meaningful at the same time. If I were unemployed, I would find comfort in being in a crowd of people who were in the same situation. I think that’s part of the reason the protests show no sign of tapering off. The protesters literally feel good when they turn off the television and control their perceived reference group. Demonizing the wealthy probably also helps because no one perceives their enemies as a reference group for status.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters are probably feeling successful. They’ve become a popular movement and received lots of attention. There’s a good chance that their actions will lead to positive changes. All of that has to feel good.
I think back to my corporate days, and the feeling of low status I experienced in my tiny gray cubicle. I took psychological refuge by playing pick-up soccer games on weekends at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I wasn’t a great player, but on many weekends I was among the better 20%, at least in my own mind. And it felt good.
When I decided to become a cartoonist, I think it was partly because I didn’t know anyone else who was good at that sort of thing. Within my artificial reference group of cubicle-dwellers, I was the best comic artist, even though I would have been near the bottom of a reference group of actual artists. I think my artificial reference group gave me the confidence to think that with no professional experience whatsoever I could become a syndicated cartoonist.
My point is that if you’re unhappy, look for a strategy that can change your reference group and create a positive change at the same time. Boost your happiness and confidence first, and use that platform to reach for whatever you define as a higher level of success.