Is Stress a Status Symbol?

Is being stressed out the new status symbol?  This is the question posed by Kristen Murray in a recent Levo League article (leovoleague.com, March 13 2013).  The answer is ‘yes’ and I think I know why.

The key lies in the murky mists of prehistory; in our evolutionary past.  You see, stress may be the new status symbol, but the human drive for status is as old as humanity itself.

Any inherited trait that leads individuals to have more children, by definition, tends to spread in a population across successive generations.  Phrased in the somewhat clinical language of the evolutionary psychologist, any trait that maximizes our reproductive success becomes an ESS – an evolutionary stable strategy.  The ability to horde resources that can be used to feed and raise children is an example of an ESS.  So, in a Darwinian world where the fittest survive, we want to find a mate who is genetically fit enough to accrue and protect a pool of resources that our mutual children and their children and their children can tap into.

But how do we know a prospective mate is genetically fit?  There are telltale physical signs that are reflected on the covers of our magazines – symmetrical faces, height and strength, youthfulness and vigor – all of which signal our ability to collect resources.  But how better to advertise that we have the resources than to flaunt them.  This is what the male peacock does.

The tail of the Indian Blue peacock measures up to five feet in length and each of the 200 ‘eyes’ formed by the feathers contains solid crystals to refract light into all the colors of the spectrum.  As beautiful as it is, it is an enormous survival handicap, rendering the bird virtually flightless and vulnerable to predators.  In essence the tail is a neon sign advertising the fitness of the bird.  It’s the bird’s way of saying, “look at me!  I have so many great genetic resources that I can afford to burn them up growing this tail and still survive.  I have the best genes around here so choose me as a mate.”

Humans have peacock tails too.  Big cars, shiny jewelry, expensive clothes, McMansions – all designed to establish our status and all tied to our drive for reproductive success.  Stress is just the latest in this long list.  Being stressed shows the world just how in demand we are, how important we must be, how busy we are gathering resources for our tribe.  Trouble is, stress is killing us.  And like the peacock’s tail, it’s preventing us from flying – from maximizing our happiness and optimizing our life satisfaction.

The good news – our big brains.  For humans, they are an ESS too.  And those big frontal lobes afford us, above any other species, the ability to override our genetic wiring and choose; to choose a path of less status seeking, less stress, and more balance.

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