The Psychology of Status-Seeking

Dear Dr. Hurd: Many people seek mass wealth because it brings social status. Throughout history status has always existed in cultures. From kings and queens to tribal hierarchies. Even the animal kingdom has examples of status. Status appears to be a very significant element of societies. Is status important fundamentally in life, if one is looking for success and happiness? Could so many people be depressed and angry because they lack status?

Reply: Status refers to a comparative relationship you have with other people — economically, with regard to authority, or some other factor.

Status is relative, but still objective. You can be a big fish in a small pond, or a “queen bee” of your community or small social circle. Or your status can be local, familial, national or international in nature.

To elevate status above all else is to consider one’s relationship with people the most important thing. It’s undoubtedly true that some people who pursue wealth do so in order to obtain status. “Fame and fortune,” as ends in themselves, undoubtedly motivate a lot of people.

However, if you study the lives and biographies of famous and wealthy people, you’ll often find that wealth-seeking was not their primary goal. Usually, successful people are passionate about what they do. They live, eat and sleep whatever they’re passionate about, and in their particular case it happens to make a lot of money.

People who make status-seeking (i.e., wealth attainment for the sake of impressing others) their primary goal are probably too preoccupied with this externally motivated quest to develop the concentration, focus and single-mindedness that genuinely successful production requires.

If you’re motivated by “What will others think of me?” then, to that extent, you’re less likely to be motivated by the things that motivate capable, productive, innovative entrepreneurs.

Kings and queens are born into their wealth and, by the rules of their existence, are able to retain that wealth no matter what. This contrasts dramatically with someone who either (a) creates his own wealth; or (b) inherits wealth, but still must spend or invest it wisely, or keep the company holding it functioning properly. Thought and effort are required for anyone without a “divine” or genealogical “right” to wealth, in contrast to royalty of eras past (and a few holdovers today).

In psychology, there are terms known as “external locus of control” and “internal locus of control.” These terms refer to the fact that some people are internally motivated, while others are externally motivated. When you’re motivated by others’ perceptions about you, then you’re less likely to be motivated by what your mind rationally and intellectually thinks of what’s going on in reality. “What’s true?” becomes replaced with, “How do I look?”

An internal locus of control person wishes to use his or her thinking mind to figure out what makes sense, what works, what will do the thing he or she wishes to accomplish, or create, in reality. An external locus of control person is concerned more about the “politics” of it all. What do others think of me? What do I have to say to so-and-so in order to ensure a positive reaction?

There is such a thing as what I call “rational public relations.” It can make sense for a person to be concerned with what relevant others (customers, potential customers, people who will send you business) think — i.e., with making sure that others know the truth about what you do, as in your business enterprise. That’s part of the purpose of advertising, as well as other efforts one might make to obtain visibility for whatever it is one is trying to accomplish. However, all of these activities serve the wider and more important purpose (to the internal locus of control person) of creating whatever is being created.

I don’t mean to imply that productive people don’t care, and should not care, about making lots of money. But money, if you’re to make a lot of it, has to be woven into the context of passion about what you’re doing. To be successful in and happy about something, you have to be able to love what you’re doing — while loving the money-making as an important benefit. But if money is treated as a thing to acquire solely or primarily so others will think a certain way of you, you’ll be emotionally impaired, to that extent, and you consequently won’t be all that you could have been.

The best way to understand this issue is to examine the biographies of people who have attained a lot of wealth or status, and how they felt about that status once they acquired it. You’ll see evidence, as I have, that love of money is not the primary driver in most cases. In fact, once such people obtain high visibility and status, they don’t necessarily like it and some even eschew it. That’s because attention from others was never what drove them in the first place.

Some people become depressed because they falsely believe they need the approval of others in order to feel meaningful and purposeful. What they fail to see is that only a sense of productivity and purpose in one’s own life can bring that. The extent to which you’re productive and purposeful is the extent to which you’ll have the visibility and approval from others for the right reasons. You might appreciate that support and respect, but you don’t need it. That’s because the things you’re doing which generate the support, respect or wealth are already being taken care of; you already have what you really need.

In short: If status is your primary goal, you’ll be unhappy without it and you’ll be unhappy once you acquire it. Why? Because depending on other people — whether for money, or self-esteem — is never the route to happiness. You have to attain it for yourself, for it to mean anything.


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