"Beggars do not envy millionaires, but of course, they do envy other beggars who are more successful."

—Bertrand Russell (1930)

This is the final part of a three-part series on the science of happiness. In Part I, I discussed some pitfalls to pursuing happiness. In Part II, I suggested that money doesn't buy happiness, unless it is spent on others. In Part III, I discuss new research suggesting that having high status might improve happiness. This post appeared previously on my blog, Psych Your Mind.


People (some more than others) can become consumed by the pursuit of social status in their everyday lives. Individuals fight for recognition from their peers, struggle for freedom and autonomy in their jobs, and pursue money and education to ascend the socioeconomic ladder. Some researchers suggest that the pursuit of status is a fundamental human motivation, and is a primary determinant of an individual's access to survival-related group resources (e.g., food and shelter). But, if the pursuit of social status is really fundamental to human social life, what does this pursuit mean for our happiness and well-being?

Some research suggests that status really doesn't get us much, in terms of happiness. For instance, people who tend to value the components of high social status (e.g., wealth and material possessions) tend to feel reduced happiness relative to their peers (Kasser & Ryan, 1993). As well, there is a large and growing body of research (across continents and countries) suggesting that having higher income only weakly predicts increased happiness. In the immortal words of the Notorious BIG, "The mo' money we come across, the mo' problems we see."

While I don't question the merit of this research, especially since these conclusions are drawn using large diverse samples of data, the conclusions are limited to a specific type of status: the possession of wealth and affluence. Perhaps another form of social status may provide a lasting boost to a person's happiness.

In new research, Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, and his colleagues examined the influence of sociometric status—one's respect and admiration in face-to-face social groups—and its relationship to happiness. Anderson and colleagues reasoned that whereas people may become accustomed to changes in wealth, or may always envy others with more wealth than themselves (e.g., Warren Buffett), being respected locally by one's peers should provide a number of social benefits that money does not. For instance, respect at work might mean that an individual's ideas are valued by co-workers, that one's effort is appreciated by colleagues, and that one may be afforded greater autonomy and freedom.

Across four studies, Anderson and colleagues found support for the association between respect and happiness. In one study, students from sororities, fraternities, and ROTC groups rated how much they respected each of their peers, along with their subjective well-being (assessed by agreeing with statements like "My life is close to my ideal."). Students who were respected by their peers tended to report higher levels of subjective well-being relative to their less respected peers. In a second study, MBA students at Haas Business School rated their respect and their subjective well-being at UC Berkeley, and then one year later when they had entered the job market. The newly minted MBAs who reported high levels of respect at work tended to feel higher in subjective well-being at the end of the year, and changes in income did not account for this boost in well-being.

It appears, based on this research, that some forms of status do actually boost one's happiness. In particular, being respected by one's peers seems to make life feel more meaningful in ways that money cannot. Of course, more research is needed, but this initial study is an important first step for helping people understand the kinds of pursuits of status that are likely to boost happiness. Maybe we should all be paying more attention to the conditions of the surrounding work environment and less attention to our paychecks?

Do you feel respect at your job and does that make you happy? Ever turned down more money to stay at a job with a respect-filled work environment? How did those decisions turn out for you?

Anderson C, Kraus MW, Galinsky AD, & Keltner D (2012). The Local-Ladder Effect: Social Status and Subjective Well-Being. Psychological science PMID: 22653798

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