In recent decades, evidence has piled up that human health and happiness is significantly affected by our place in the pecking order. Social epidemiologists such as Michael Marmot and the authors of The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have done the most to convert what was once a surprising theory into something now widely accepted as fact.
The theory that status influences well-being has plenty of critics. But even if it is true, it is not clear what we should do in response. Too often it is assumed that if status is shown to affect how people feel across the globe, then we have to accept that as an immutable fact. What is normal or typical, however, is not always desirable or unchangeable.
For instance, any cross-cultural analysis would have found that mothers do much more child-rearing than men. But had we concluded from that that things can never be any different, Swedish fathers would not have become the progressive role models they are today. Even if a pattern of behaviour is almost universal, we can’t know in advance if it is a law of nature we cannot change or simply a remnant of our primitive past that we can and should modify.
Even on its own terms, the idea that status matters has its own internal mutability. Any careful anthropological analysis would show that what confers status varies from place to place, and time to time. In many orthodox Jewish communities, for example, learning is more highly prized than wealth. Whereas four decades ago teachers perceived their status to be 4.3 on a five-point scale, now that figure is around 2.7.
The way to deal with the “fact” that status matters is not therefore simply to accept as inevitable the importance of our position on the economic league table. A better approach might be to try to change the assumptions we have about what should be valued. Status is not simply a given of nature: it is something that we confer.
A nagging sense that one does not quite measure up is common. Feelings of underachievement and obsessing about what our peers have achieved that we haven’t can blight even the most successful life. This is not too surprising: our society privileges competition and encourages self-evaluation based on material markers of social status.
If the world is made up of winners and losers, counting ourselves among the latter can open an uncomfortable gap between the way things are and the way we’d like them to be. Frequently we think the solution simply lies in achieving more: if we managed to secure a better salary, house, body, then we’d be able to drop the comparing game and feel contented.
But this strategy risks landing us on a treadmill off which we can never step. There will always be people who in our eyes have achieved more than us, and we’d constantly be running to try and catch up with them. Some researchers have linked this competitive individualism with an increase in mental health problems.
A drive towards achieving is an important part of our evolved toolkit. But it doesn’t follow that it is a good idea to spend our lives slavishly following the most basic of our instinctual drives. We can use our capacity for reflection to help us to decide for ourselves what is truly worth doing and what actually gives meaning to our life.
We don’t all have to renounce the world in favour of the contemplative life (although some of us might want to). But some adjustments might be beneficial.
I have found useful the psychologist Paul Gilbert’s distinction between threat-based and value-based achievement striving. We should endeavour to do things because we value them, not in order to escape feelings of anxiety about our place on the social ladder.
Even if a certain amount of comparison is natural and unavoidable, we can create more balance by focusing on what we are content with, savouring small things, engaging in activities we enjoy for their own sake, and seeking non-competitive social interactions. We don’t have to banish status from the good life, but we should put it in its proper place.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England. Stephen Grosz returns next week