Here is an interesting fact: People who are lower down on the socioeconomic status ladder (as measured by income, occupation, living conditions, etc.) are less healthy than those higher up. At first glance, this may make sense because we can easily assume that those with resources have access to better healthcare, but there’s more to it than that.
In his tomb of a book on human behavior, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Stanford University neuro-endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky argues that a good portion of the difference is caused by stress. In particular, it is the stress associated with our own awareness of where we sit on this socioeconomic ladder. Objective factors play a role, of course, but when people in research studies were asked to judge their own status relative to others, it became clear that there is a particular kind of stress associated with simply knowing that there are people who are higher up in society than you and that you live your life in response to this fact. This, in turn, leaves you susceptible to more health problems.
As wild as the subjectivity of this is, in some ways, it’s perhaps no surprise. Humans are masters of creating and working status hierarchies. For as long as we have existed in groups, we have competed with each other for resources, and that competition has generally created a clear pecking order. Historically, those at the top gained all kinds of rewards that people lower down didn’t, like access to mating opportunities, food and shelter, and other nice-to-haves. Even today, people who are wealthier or have some other form of reputational currency are given things that most others aren’t, and so, it makes sense that it’s something we keep track of.
In fact, we keep track of it to such a degree that it’s useful to think of ourselves as having two separate selves: the first is our first-person self — who we say we are, what we like, the version of us that makes us different from other people — and our third-person self — who we think other people think we are, what we want other people to think we like, the version of us that watches how others judge us and where that judgment places us in the status hierarchy. And this latter self is incredibly useful because, as a human being, to live in the physical world is to live in the social world, and if you don’t have the social intelligence to judge what others think of you and how your interactions with them play out, then your ability to live well suffers.
In the past, especially, this third-person self had a critical role to play. In hunter and gatherer tribes, for example, the difference between being at the top of the ladder versus the bottom could have been the difference between life and death. To add to that, if other people thought too badly of you, you could be rejected from the tribe, and that was indeed as good as dead. In harsh living conditions, individuals don’t survive; groups do.
In our modern, interconnected world, two things have happened: The first is that we are globally connected, which means that the hierarchy is far more extreme. It’s no longer a competition within a group of, say, 150 people, but it’s competition observed across 7 billion people, and we all know who Bill Gates is or who Jeff Bezos is; the second is that because the world we live in today is far more abundant (at least in Western countries, where the majority of us don’t worry about food and shelter), and our local groups measure status by different markers (who dresses the best at school, who sings the best at church, who knows the most bouncers at the city bars, etc.), we don’t just have one place in one hierarchy but many places in many hierarchies, and this changes quite literally in every single interaction we have relative to who is there and what the context is.
Not only is the modern, third-person self-judging itself relative to people it doesn’t know and people who will never have any impact on its life, but it is constantly re-calibrating its perception according to markers across the tens and hundreds of different little groups that it is a part of. From this point of view, it’s perhaps not surprising that this whole game is capable of causing so much subjective stress that people end up being exposed to diseases that they otherwise would be completely free from. The question, of course, is what we do about this?
The answer is relatively simple: Close the gap between the first and the third-person self by calibrating your principles and living by them and them only. Some 200,000 years ago, your rank in the group was directly tied to your livelihood. Today, the world is far too complex for that to be the case. Sure, knowing that Bill Gates has more money than you are rubbed into your face regularly, but what does that have to do with your life? Do you not have enough self-respect to realize that he had a different life, with different values, and different goals that catered to his own individuality and that you can’t compete with that regardless of net worth? Once basic income, food, and shelter are taken care of, in the modern world, most of us don’t have any obligation to play the status game, and doing so is a direct attack on our own individuality because it rejects our own uniqueness and accepts that there are enough people just like us for us to directly compete with.
In every single interaction we have, status is at play. Most of the time, this is unconscious and expressed in our body language relative to a person or a group. You can even think that you don’t care about it, but if you haven’t truly outlined your own values and principles to reflect your own unique individuality, and if you haven’t gotten over the irrational fear of rejection, then you are likely still accumulating stress from social anxiety by simply being around people who you perceive to be better or worse than you.
Status independence means that you are the same person at work as you are at home as you are in a local bar as you are in a different country. It means that outside of situations where it directly affects your livelihood (perhaps work-related), there are no people who are better or worse than you, only different. And because we’re all different, most judgments don’t matter. And when judgments don’t matter, social context doesn’t matter, which means that social anxiety and social stress are mitigated. And the thing about this is that, with this level of integrity, you begin to go into every situation with absolutely nothing to prove, nothing to show, nothing to gain. And because everybody else is always trying to prove something, it’s always impressive to people to see someone with the restraint not to do the same.
You can’t always be the richest or the prettiest, but you can be the person who is least impressed by these things alone; the person who looks beyond status to see character both in yourself and in other people. Social anxiety and psychosocial stress are generally signs, that deep down, you care about the wrong things. It means that you haven’t done the work required to feel comfortable with who you are and where you are going so you have to settle for the shortcut-way of measuring worth. Not always, because it’s obviously a lot more complex than that and some people do struggle with crippling versions of anxiety and stress that go beyond this, but for most people, this is true.
The most insidious thing, of course, is that even in the modern world, playing status games can be necessary as a means to our personal goals. The redeeming thing, on the other hand, is that when you are status independent — a truly agnostic state where you neither love nor hate status but just see it as it is — you do actually end up attracting status.
In any social situation — from a high-end business negotiation to date, to interactions with friends, even — the unspoken rule is that the person who is the most relaxed (not superficially relaxed, but truly, internally calm), is the person who earns the most attention over time. People can intuitively sense it. Why is that? Because in order to be that calm, to be that relaxed, it must be true that they have absolutely nothing to hide, no vulnerability they are covering up for, no aggression/strong-front to hide deeper insecurities, which immediately establishes trust. You might not always notice this person right away, but when you do, you can’t help but gravitate towards them.
Your relationship with other people can either generate or destroy your livelihood, and a big part of the difference lies in a simple distinction: Do you judge yourself and others by status or by character?