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Why You Think You'll Never Stack Up

The pursuit of prestige has an upside. The quest for cash and cachet—and envy of others' good fortune—are not simply base instincts to be overcome. A bit of status anxiety is a good thing, so long as you understand what you really covet and why.

The alumni journal is a gratingly personal catalogue of a universal predicament: status anxiety. Like all universals, this anxiety has its own deep logic. Learning that our best friend from college is happily married and wildly successful brings sincere joy and admiration but also waves of envy, which serve a primal purpose. Envy nudges us to earn an impressive job title, snag material comforts and catch and keep a fetching spouse, all of which, as nature would have it, boil down to life's reproductive necessities. We may never be able to overcome our concern with status, and we may not want to: In moderation it is good for us. Understanding our need for status can help us to channel our energies most productively and make use of our talents.

We are all at least a touch malcontent with our lot. The frustrations that accumulate as we fall behind in our career goals or mortgage payments are tiring and vulgar; the hair loss serums and the struggle to fit into our favorite pair of jeans are not battles we're proud of. But to our credit, we don't simply want more, more, more.

Sure, images of Donald Trump's gilded Boeing jet or of Kimora Lee Simmons's 30-carat diamond ring and 42-inch legs feed into our status anxiety on some level, but at the end of the day, we're concerned with our immediate reference group—one made up of about 150 people. "When you see Bill Gates' mansion, you don't actually aspire to have one like it. It's who is local, who is near you physically and who is most like you—your family members, coworkers and old high school classmates—with whom you compare yourself," says economist Robert H. Frank, of Cornell University. The homogeneity in most communities sensitizes us to tiny upgrades in our midst. "If someone in your reference group has more," he says, "you get a little anxious."

In the 1980s, Frank dismantled a premise central to economic theory: People will always choose the greatest absolute amount of wealth. Landmark research shows that our preferences are actually quite relative. We'd rather make $50,000 while living in a neighborhood where everyone else makes $40,000 than earn $100,000 among those who are raking in $150,000.

Peers in our little pond, such as the old college crew, are the most accurate yardsticks of our own performance. They probably started out in life with the same advantages as we did and are the same age. They are our rivals, fair and square. "The more similar people are to us, the more we can really gauge their success in a particular area," says Richard Smith, associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. He recalls drawing a stick figure on his two-year-old daughter's easel just before the mother of one of her preschool classmates walked in. "Did your daughter do that?" the girl's mother exclaimed in a panicky voice, while her own daughter continued to scribble wildly. The two little girls happened to share the same birthday, which made the mother even more acutely afraid that her daughter's fine motor skills were dramatically outclassed.

"People are rarely satisfied with simply knowing their own performance, as anyone who has taught students knows," says Smith. "They want to know how they stack up against others." Our natural tendency is to establish a pecking order: When placed in an unfamiliar group, subjects are quick to accurately judge where they and other group members rank on various characteristics, even before they speak to one another. Supposed respites from ranking are not immune either: The heavier children at fat camp are ostracized; communes—even prisons—are heavily stratified.

We are primed for pettiness, programmed to notice seemingly inconsequential gradations, but for good reason: Being chronically dissatisfied is an effective stimulus to best your more complacent peers.

David Buss, of the University of Texas at Austin, and his graduate student Sarah Hill see our persistent status anxiety as a survival mechanism developed hundreds of thousands of years ago when our psychological apparatuses took form. In those times, we traveled in small herds and jockeyed for food and love in very direct ways that lent urgency to cutthroat ranking (as well as to cooperative living). The civilized modern stage upon which status dramas are enacted is not so stripped down—we don't literally miss out on meals if our neighbors overstuff their pantry—but the mechanism remains intact and attuned to the same ultimate goals.

Because it is in our nature to home in on the goals of survival and reproduction, men and women conserve mental energy for comparisons in realms that relate directly to these two pursuits. Think of how women are easily irritated by a gorgeous secretary, while (straight) men barely cast a glance at the dashing young male paralegals in the office. Women are more envious of other women's good looks, say evolutionary psychologists, because appearance is an important marker of youth and fertility. In a beauty-contest version of the economist Frank's salary preferences breakdown, women in Buss and Hill's survey reported they would rather be a "5" among "4s" than an "8" among "10s." Their male counterparts would rather be the best looking in absolute terms.

Men are designed to amass solid evidence that they could support a mate and offspring. (As the rapper Young MC once said, "If you got no money and you got no car, then you got no woman, and there you are.") This necessary "proof of resources" may take the form of hard cash or merely cachet, anything that could reassure a woman that she will be provided for. Like feathers on a peacock's tail, unnecessary yet conspicuous displays send a loud signal to potential mates: "I have resources to burn over here!"

But complex forces scramble these deep-seated tendencies and account for why women don't exclusively focus on their appearance, nor men on their finances. Buss and Hill's research shows that just like men, women would prefer to have a higher salary than others in their reference group. Hill reasons that this has nothing to do with women wanting to be perceived as providers. Women just happen to like "stuff." "The reason men like acquiring resources is because women like them so much," she says, "whether they get them from men or from themselves."

Then there's the rise of the "metrosexual" man, whose very existence defies the dogma that men don't care to look better than their peers. "As women gain access to their own resources, they are sampling more from the buffet of the mating table," Hill explains. "Men have to up the ante, to be attractive, too."

Once we perceive our chances for happiness are threatened by another's flowing locks of raven hair or tricked-out Hummer, a complementary adaptive response kicks in: envy. When we stand to miss out on life's prizes, on what we think we deserve or could achieve, envy's distinct blend of inferiority and hostility surges through us. "The brute fact is that it does matter if we are not comparing well with someone else," says Smith. "People who don't feel envy are going to wither away. Its hostile edge makes it a special call to action, and it may create the necessary impulse to narrow the gap or to move ahead."

Just as with anxiety, says Peter Salovey, professor of psychology at Yale, a mild dose of envy can energize us and concentrate our efforts: "If I really wish I had a car like my neighbor's, then that will motivate me to put my nose to the grindstone and earn more money in order to be able to buy that car." Monitoring the circumstances under which our envy attacks occur may even help us figure out who we are. "Envy helps us know what's really important to us," he says. If we consistently feel envy toward classmates who earn perfect grades or climbers who summit mighty peaks, these must be the domains on which we stake our reputations.

There is a difference between helpful stabs of envy and their pathological variant, however. People who are dissatisfied with life in general are more envious, as are people who exhibit neuroticism, which is characterized by tendencies to feel worried, insecure and excitable. Smith theorizes that the chronically envious may get into a pattern of misinterpreting social comparison information. Like vigilantes, they are constantly scanning for evidence that they do not measure up. Those who suffer from depression are likely to shine the worst possible light on themselves when making comparisons and are therefore also more susceptible to envy. And envy is ultimately isolating. Envy impairs your ability to maintain close relationships, which happen to be the best refuge from a status-obsessed society, warns veteran journalist Chris Hedges, author of Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America . "Envy pushes us away from what's most precious, and that is love." Those who are lonely, who lack close personal relationships, are most susceptible to status anxiety, he says.

"It's not enough to succeed," Gore Vidal famously quipped. "One's friends must fail." But there's one caveat to the measuring game. Someone else's good fortune doesn't spark envy if their gain is not our loss. Finding a partner within a small pool of singles, for example, is a zero-sum game akin to musical chairs: Each time someone else pairs off, your chance of getting left out increases. But if you're already happily married, someone else's marriage doesn't affect your happiness directly. Buss and Hill found that you'd prefer to stay married for as long as possible, rather than simply longer than others in your reference group who remain together. You'll feel sentimental (and perhaps hopeful that your own union will go the distance) at your next-door neighbors' golden anniversary celebration, not envious of their longevity.

Because envy is a direct threat to self-esteem, we often twist it into something more palatable, says Smith, and decide to denigrate the quality (or person) we envy. You may sigh as you thumb through the alumni journal, reflecting on the tragedy that is your former best friend's transformation. She may have done well for herself, but she sure did sell out! There's just no trace of that simple, virtuous and completely nonthreatening girl you once loved. But then the next day, you'll finally map out a plan for that import-export venture you're going to start. How nice it will feel to drop the alumni bulletin a note when it gets off the ground.

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