Your social status is killing you

For most of my career, I was a consultant. Not one of those Bain or McKinsey consultants. I had my own shop (Dopamine, LLC), and chose who I wanted to work with and how much I wanted to work. It was nice. I had full control over my life and was quite picky about who I worked with. In fact, I often decided that a certain client wouldn’t be the best fit and would (politely) pass on the opportunity to do a project with them.

Intermixed with my consulting life were three full-time positions: Rally, Quixey, and Handshake. All these companies were great & working on fascinating problems.

But I always noticed something after I hit the ~3-month mark as a full-timer: my health suffered. I’m not saying that I became bed-ridden, but I would get sick more than usual and my energy would start to lag—decreasing by maybe 25%. Since I’m a workaholic, that just meant that my life from 7:00 PM to bedtime would consist of couch hugging and Netflix. I didn’t have the energy to do my art (or even read as much as I’d have liked).

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I always blamed my issues on “stress”, but that’s just a vague catch-all for “something is not working (or something is suboptimal)”.

Then I discovered the work of Michael Marmot. He’s an epidemiologist at University College London. His research is too voluminous to summarize—I suggest you check it out if you’re interested in this kind of thing—but today I want to point you to one of the books he wrote based on his analyses of longitudinal health data from across the world. It’s called “The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity”.

Marmot points out how robustly our relative social status impacts our health. The higher in the status hierarchy you are, the better; the lower your death rate from all causes.

He has many striking examples of this effect in the book. One of my favorites involves Hollywood actors and actresses:

Successful Hollywood actors provide us with such a natural experiment. Two researchers from Toronto, Donald Redelmeier and Sheldon Singh, got the records of seventy-two years of motion picture Academy Awards. 4 They reasoned that an actor who won an Oscar would get such a boost to her or his self-esteem and status in the world that, if these were important for health, Oscar-winners should live longer than other film actors. The problem, of course, is finding an appropriate comparison group. Oscar winners will be richer than your jobbing film actor. Redelmeier and Singh needed a comparison group that was rich, even if not quite as gold-plated as the winners. The researchers found two: actors of the same sex who had appeared in the very film that got the winner the Oscar; the second group comprised actors who had been nominated but never won. 

The remarkable finding was that the Academy Award-winning actors and actresses lived an astonishing four years longer than their costars and the actors nominated who did not win. Four years might not sound like much. To give a flavor of how big an average of four years’ extension to life really is, we calculated how many years of life would be added to the population average it coronary heart disease, the major cause of death, was suddenly reduced to zero, that is, no one died of coronary heart disease but their chances of dying ot other diseases at any given age remained the same. The answer is that slightly less than four years would be added to the population’s life expectancy. Four years, then, is enormous. Winning the Oscar is like reducing your chance of dying from a heart attack from about average to zero. Not bad. Winning the Oscar early in life changes the happy one forever. The average length of time between winning the Oscar and death was about four decades. If winning an Oscar did that, it is a rather potent life enhancer.

So what’s the causal mechanism behind these huge differences?

Marmot thinks that increased *autonomy* and *social connection* is the driving factor behind the enhanced health that higher status individuals enjoy. That would jive with one of the most famous psychological theories of motivation, Self-Determination Theory / Cognitive Evaluation Theory, in which autonomy is one of the primary human needs—as important for our psychological flourishing as food is to our biological health.

When I decided to leave my high-flexibility consulting life and join a company full-time, I gave up a substantial amount of my autonomy. It’s no wonder that, in each of those cases, I felt worse.

We know that a lack of control increases stress hormone (cortisol) secretion, which, if released chronically, wreaks havoc on the body—especially the brain and immune system.

The funny thing is that we almost never factor psychological variables like this into our career decisions. You may bring in less money doing your own thing, but the increased control you’ll have over your schedule and life may make it more than worthwhile.

My 2c for the day.

-Jason

Jason Hreha