Mingling with moguls may send your mental health spiraling. (Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Envious of Taylor Swift’s star-studded girl squad? Unless you’re a singer or supermodel, you may not want to be a part of her crew — it will probably just bum you out. That’s because associating with people who have a higher status than you is linked with depression, according to a new study in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
Sociologists have two competing theories about how befriending big shots affects our mental health. One is called the “social capital theory,” which suggests that people in high places will pull you up along with them; the other is “comparative reference group theory,” the less optimistic idea that high-status people will only make you feel inadequate by comparison.
To test which theory holds true in the United States, Lijun Song, PhD, a Vanderbilt University sociologist, asked adults about the people they know and the jobs they hold. Each individual’s career was assigned a point value, based on the International Socioeconomic Index, which measures occupational status according to education and income. (For example, lawyers are given a score of 85 points, while security guards are assigned 35 points.)
Then, Song assessed study participants’ mental health and analyzed the data, asking questions like: How high does the average person’s social network climb? How many people does the average person know who have a higher status than him or herself? What about a lower status?
What she found: “The higher the highest positions of your network members, the higher the degree of depression,” Song tells Yahoo Health. In other words, if the highest-status person you know is a professor (78 points), you’re more likely to be blue than if the most highly ranked individual in your social network is a writer (66 points). Likewise, “the greater number of positions that are higher than your own, the higher the degree of your depression symptoms,” says Song. So if 12 of your friends are big shots compared to you, you’re more likely to feel bummed than if only six of your friends are higher status than you.
These findings are consistent with “comparative reference group theory.” “When people make upward social comparison, scholars label that ‘negative social comparison,’” says Song. “You may become less satisfied with your life. You may feel a sense of failure. You may have the feeling of relative deprivation. Even your self-esteem can be damaged.”
Keep in mind, however, that the negative effects she studied are strictly in the realm of mental health — there can be benefits to associating with high-status folks, such as help finding a job. “Prominent people can act as your social credentials,” Song explains. “They may influence the decision-making process if they occupy authoritative positions.” To keep with the T. Swift analogy, you may be more likely to book a gig as a back-up dancer in a music video if you’re pals with her.
But, Song reiterates, that doesn’t necessarily translate to feeling on top of the world. “If you know people who are high status, you are more likely to easily or more effectively climb up the social ladder on the job market. That’s quite positive,” she says. “It’s just your mental health that may suffer.” Does that mean we should all avoid high-status folks, for the sake of our sanity? “In practice, it’s difficult to manage,” admits Song, who adds that factors like beauty and popularity may also contribute to upward, or negative, social comparison. Perhaps, she says, the solution is from within: Avoid comparing yourself to others, period — and make your own previous successes the thing to beat.
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