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Respect from our peers brings more happiness than wealth, study finds

Social status that comes from the respect and admiration of your peers is more likely to bring you happiness than status that’s based on the amount of money and fancy things you’ve accumulated, according to a study published earlier this week in the journal Psychological Science.

That’s definitely reassuring in this new gilded age of ours.

The study’s authors, led by Cameron Anderson, an associate professor of business at the University of California, Berkeley (UCLA), say that they got interested in this topic because dozens of studies in many different countries have found that socioeconomic status — how much wealth and material stuff we possess — plays little role in our personal happiness. In fact, they say, “individuals who more strongly value wealth and material possessions, which are components of [soecioeconomic status], tend to experience lower” satisfaction with their life. They’re also more likely to have “impoverished social connections.”

But, as the study’s authors also note, achieving higher social status is a fundamental drive among humans (and other animals). It, therefore, should increase happiness. Perhaps researchers have just been looking at the wrong kind of status.

Anderson and his colleagues decided to conduct a series of four experiments to examine the role of a different, non-material kind of status on people’s sense of wellbeing. It’s called sociometric status, and is defined by the study’s authors as “the respect and admiration individuals have in their face-to-face groups, such as among their neighbors, coworkers, or classmates.”

Four experiments

The first experiment involved 80 college students (average age: 20.4 years) from a variety of campus organizations (including sororities and ROTC). Using a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), the students rated each other on whether he or she was respected, admired and looked up to by others on campus. They also rated their own status. In addition, the students answered questions on the number of leadership positions they held on campus, their total household income and their social wellbeing (happiness).

After adjusting for gender and ethnicity (factors that can have their own influence on social status), the UCLA researchers found that the students’ sociometric status was a greater predictor of their contentment with campus life than their socioeconomic status.

A second experiment, which drew on a larger and older (average age: 32.8 years) sample of people (recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), resulted in similar findings. This experiment, however, also discovered that one of the reasons the individuals with higher sociometric status had a higher sense of wellbeing was “because they felt a greater sense of power and greater acceptance in their groups.”  “Where people stand in their local hierarchy matters to their happiness,” the researchers concluded.

In a third experiment, which involved 228 online participants, Anderson and his colleagues showed that people’s personal sense of status and wellbeing could be manipulated by having them compare themselves with someone who had either high or low sociometric status.

The fourth experiment looked at whether changes in sociometric status following a major life transition (in this case, graduation from an MBA program) could predict corresponding changes in feelings of wellbeing. The experiment showed that it did. “As MBA students’ sociometric status rose or fell after they graduated, their [subjective wellbeing] rose or fell accordingly,” Anderson and his colleagues wrote. Furthermore, changes in sociometric status were more predictive of changes in the graduates’ happiness than changes in socioeconomic status.

Why, as these experiments suggest, would sociometric status matter more than socioeconomic status? One possible explanation, say Anderson and his colleagues, is that “the joy that comes with an influx of money wanes quickly as people become accustomed to how wealth shapes their daily lives,” while the happiness that comes with the “respect and admiration from one’s face-to-face groups” appears to stay with us — at least, as long as we continue to have it.

“Individuals’ standing in their local ladders of respect — their friendship workplace, or neighborhood groups — has a strong impact on their life satisfaction and the degree to which they experience positive and negative emotion,” the study’s authors conclude. “The respect one commands locally shapes how one feels globally.”

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