By Marlis Jansen with Lily Boyar
Gweneth’s Paltrow’s buzzy term might make your eyes roll. But hear us out. Wealth and status are inextricably linked. Financial wealth refers to the value of our assets and resources. Money affords us opportunities, access, and choices. However, in most cases, few people beyond our partners, financial advisors, or accountants intimately know the details of our financial situation. Status, however, is visible. It is seen as “social proof” of achieving a certain level of financial wealth or leadership. Status is an external benchmark that is achieved by social comparison. When someone is considered to have a high social status, they are privy to “perks’’ and benefits that will facilitate ease and connection with others.
In our culture, wealth has become a shortcut to status. But what if we evaluated it differently? What if status was only attained when someone used their resources for the good of many?
What we’re really saying is, perhaps money and status need to spend some time seeing other people. We believe money alone should not be enough to give us social status. This may seem like a bit of a radical idea. But, before you run the other direction, hang in there for a moment and let’s explore this together.
Why Do We Care About Status?
Economist John Harsanyi, says “apart from economic payoffs, social status seems to be the most important incentive and motivating force of social behavior.” In fact, it is fundamentally human to care about our social standing and to strive for respect and differentiation from our peers. It’s why there are so many variations of competition reality TV. Status holds merit in our culture.
Wanting to strive for more is a very natural human trait. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. If someone could secure more resources, they were better fit to survive. Things like plentiful food, livestock, or land, for example, gave someone the ability to thrive and the opportunity to elevate others. And as a result, they gained respect from their peers because they were perceived as having value to contribute to the community. Status was more directly related to someone’s inherent abilities.
Our fixation on social status also makes sense from a cultural perspective. Most of the world’s population comes from countries that are class-based. Think about Russia, India, China, or Great Britain. Historically, the United States was formed as a response to British royal oppression. While it has changed dramatically since that time, cultural remnants remain.
Today, instead of having more cows than our neighbor, we signal wealth and plentiful resources by the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the home we live in, or, where we sit on the airplane. Wealth breeds status, which indicates some combination of hard work, luck, and/or inherited privilege.
We must acknowledge that, because of societal inequities, some individuals are at a greater advantage for financial success and opportunities. Our current call to engage in social and environmental justice is beginning to advance this conversation on its own. And because of vast disparities in compensation across industries, wealth creation does not represent value creation. As a culture, we revere wealth alone, often without evaluating the contributions of its holders. We’d like to challenge that.
Separating Our Self Worth From Our Net Worth
What makes wealth and status so tricky is that they can become conflated with our identity. When we reach a certain level of affluence, it can become challenging to separate our finances from our character because our interests, activities, and contributions are all tied to our wealth status. But identity is about knowing who we are and having the courage to express our individual interests and talents. This is why money can be inherited, but self-worth cannot. Money doesn’t make us who we are but it can be used to actualize our goals and values. Money can facilitate growth and contribution.
So, who are you outside of your wealth? What do you care about? What makes you feel most alive? The truth is, there are more answers to this question than there are people. Perhaps you are dedicated to raising healthy children. Maybe you care about the environment or your local community. We each have our own values and ways of contributing to the good of many.
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to have many experiences in my life that would be considered by most people to be “high status” from social clubs to fancy hotels. However, I’ve often found myself asking, “where’s the there, there?” What need is this fulfilling? Significance is a fundamental human need. But a high status experience may not always do the trick. Does being in the VIP section really make us a very important person? Perhaps our sense of value comes from another source.
The point of this piece isn’t to be a status-shamer. We are all entitled to do what gives us meaning and makes us feel good. But our cultural obsession with status is limiting. When we each have a clear sense of who we are and what drives us, we can use our status and wealth in service of those goals. We start to derive meaning less from external validation, and more from the experience of being an agent of change.
The Big So What
We believe having money alone isn’t enough to be revered by our peers. There is more to the story. But when we use our wealth and status to elevate others, we contribute toward solving the problems of our world. It’s not the money itself, but what we do with it that is most important. It doesn’t define who we are, it is our values and commitments that represent our impact on the world.
The more we can shift our focus from rewarding people who have great things to those who are doing great things, the more compassionate, inclusive, and just society we will have.
Waytz, Adam. “The Psychology of Social Status.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 8 Dec. 2009, www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-psychology-of-social/.