Our physical appearance isn’t the only thing that changes with age. Our status also starts to take a hit. We live in a culture that celebrates youth, and after 40 you can start to feel … invisible. Your job isn’t secure, unless we were lucky enough to get the C suite. The jokes that used to draw laughs now put us on the radar of HR. And we’re no longer the fit guy on the block.
These status changes aren’t benign. Humans are social animals who evolved to vigilantly jockey for status and fret about what others think of us. We have a whole toolbox of emotions that depend entirely on other peoples’ thoughts, feelings or actions. They compel us to work with others (or not) so we can thrive in our environment.
“People are not supposed to care about status, and a high desire for status is seen as selfish and superficial,” said Cameron Anderson, who studies power, status and influence dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley.
But the truth is we do care, as we probably should. As humans evolved, having more status improved our odds of survival in a conflict. It got us better mates. It got us a bigger share of scarce resources. It even helped us get out of crappy menial work that burned energy.
Thanks to that long history of status being a lifesaver, our thing for status stuck. Research shows that people with higher status are generally happier and experience fewer mental and physical health problems like anxiety, depression and heart disease.
So what do you do when you feel your status slipping away? Here’s how to navigate it.
1. Quit comparing, start helping.
One-upping neighbors and coworkers — by chasing more money, working longer hours, etc. — might have gotten you far. But at a certain point, it becomes self-defeating and misery inducing. As you age, change the game. Shift your goals to helping others find their own way up the ladder. Spend less time at work and more time volunteering. Research from Australia shows that middle- and older-age adults who volunteer at moderate levels up to seven hours a week are more satisfied with their life.
2. Train for your 90th.
Sorry, but you’re never again going to be as strong or jacked as you were back in college. So let it go. Training like you did at 20 could set you up for injuries that take you out of the game permanently. Instead of trying to cling to your old buff self, think to the future and set yourself up to be active into old age.
Focus on skills like stability, or the ability to resist falls, and brace your back when you lift something. Maintain a general level of strength and cardiovascular fitness by lifting at least twice a week and getting at least 150 minutes of cardio exercise each week. Consider shifting to low-impact cardio like rucking (carrying weight in a backpack as you walk), rather than high-impact running.
3. Find a smaller pond.
If you’ve spent a career climbing the corporate ladder and feel like you’ll never quite reach the top, consider finding a new job with a better title. Researchers have found that it’s better for our physical and mental health to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond — that is, having a higher rank at a smaller company — than to be somewhere in the middle of a big, well-known company. Even if we make more money at the bigger company.
4. Compare objectively, not subjectively.
You might be causing your own status anxiety. For example, research shows that people in the top percentile of wealth — one-percenters who make at least $600,000 a year — frequently complain of feeling poor and stretched. This is because they usually live around other one-percenters. They focus on what they don’t have compared to their peers. It leads these objectively rich people to believe that they are subjectively poor.
Your move: If you ever feel stretched, analyze whether you’re reacting to your environment. Do you actually need more or not have enough, or does it only feel that way because everyone around you has too much?
Photo credits: Getty Images (2)
[This story was originally published, in a slightly different form, in Michael Easter's new book "Scarcity Brain: Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewire Your Habits to Thrive with Enough," available now.]