Q: How static is my status? How do I change it?
A: We see a huge benefit to getting more active locally: joining groups, being on committees. When people consider all the positive things in their day-to-day lives — friendships, community activities, family — they give themselves a higher total status than if they just look at traditional SES indicators like education and income. And I think that in general changing status is easier for women since we’re used to playing so many roles. We can choose to focus on the aspect of our status where we feel most confident. For example, when my daughter was in a playgroup, every mother had to take a turn bringing the snack. One day, another mother had made these adorable teddy bear cookies, frosted and decorated with eyes and everything. I felt just terrible, because every time it was my turn to bring the snack, I bought Fig Newtons. But I said to myself, "You’re never going to be the best baker mom, but on the other hand, you do have a pretty good job, and at least you remembered to bring a snack. So maybe you’re not so bad." Instead of feeling crummy that I had bought cookies instead of baking them, I let myself focus on a part of my life where I felt successful.
Or you could focus on your spiritual life, thinking, "I am very moral and a good person," and that can improve your own view of where you sit in the social hierarchy. Taking pride in the successes in your personal life as well as in your community seems to be a very powerful indicator for health.
Q: Are you saying that by thinking good thoughts about myself or by counting my blessings, I can improve my health?
A: It’s not enough just to trick yourself into thinking you’re better off than you are. What our research acknowledges is that social status is complex and made up of many components — some of which can be changed by positive decisions that you make about your life, like going back to school or getting involved in your community. You can alter your perception of how well you are doing in the world, and if you feel that things are going well for you, it makes a big difference.
Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2006.