SCIENCE
12/16/2014 03:49 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

The Real Connection Between Ambition And Mental Health

We're a culture that tends to define success in terms of money and power. But finding other ways to measure self-worth isn’t just intrinsically worthwhile -- it could help prevent a troubling mental health diagnosis.

How one views social status, including financial status, can predict mental health problems including bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, anxiety and depression, according to a new study from the University of California at Berkeley.

The research, which was published this month in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, applied the “dominance behavioral system" -- a model used to explain how humans and animals assess their position in social hierarchies -- to 600 young men and women, particularly focusing on their motivation to achieve wealth and power.

Whether they achieved success by these definitions or not, the outcome was dim: A deflated sense of power or disappointment in social standing was associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety, while excessive striving and ambition meant a higher risk of bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

Previous research supports this connection: A 2010 study found that people who live in developed countries with very high levels of income inequality are three times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders than people living in developed nations that are more economically uniform. Countries with particularly large gaps between rich and poor, the new research suggests, may foster cultures of intense striving for wealth and power, in which it's easy for an individual's self-worth to become deeply intertwined with their social status.

The Huffington Post spoke to Berkeley psychologist Sheri Johnson, the study's lead author to learn more about the role social status plays in mental health.

Why did you decide to apply an animal behavioral model to humans?

Most of us are used to the idea that we live within a system of social dominance, or that there's some sort of rank order or sense of hierarchy among people. That's interesting to me because it's got some deep roots -- most animals who live in packs have a sense of hierarchy. There are a lot of scientists who study this in animal models. What we've been working on, a long with a lot of other researchers, is the idea that there are a lot of pieces in how to think about our social hierarchy.

How do people conceive of power?

First, you can think about the level of power you have within any one hierarchy. Do you feel like you have the power to influence people? Second on the list might be how important it is for you to have that power -- so motivation for power, and comfort with having power. Some people really want to get to the top and others are happy in the middle, and others are just trying to avoid being at the bottom. Then, we also look at the strategies people use to attain power.

Finally, it's a question of, how do you feel emotionally when the power has been attained? There, we draw on the work of Jessica Tracey, who's shown that pride is an emotion that's triggered when you have a sense of having attained power.

What kind of differences have you observed in how people judge the importance of achieving high levels of wealth and power?

Research shows that we're really varied in how much we put our investments into attaining power and the admiration of other people. There are some people who are really motivated to make sure that other people are admiring them and respecting them because that's one form of attaining a sense of social dominance. So their ambitions might have more to do with being recognized by other people than by their own intrinsically satisfying activities.

Psychologists talk about the idea that you can pursue either extrinsically-oriented life motivations or intrinsically-oriented life motivations. Intrinsic motivations might be "I want to be very close to people," "I want to feel like my life has meaning," "I want to feel like I'm doing something good for the universe." Extrinsic ambitions might be things like "I want to make sure that I'm wealthier than other people," "I want to be viewed by others as having influence and power."

As you can imagine, people set very different priorities on those two broad levels of organizing their lives. What they've shown is that for college seniors who put their focus on these extrinsically oriented life goals, that's going to predict less life satisfaction over time. It's an unhappy way to set your life goals.

Are people who are more invested in power more likely to suffer from mental health problems?

Certainly that story holds for people with anxiety and depression. People who put their value on a set of goals related to attaining power -- and then experience profound sense of subordination and not making it to those goals -- are at high risk for anxiety and depression.

For narcissism, we're not as sure which direction it plays out. We don't have the longitudinal evidence. We do know that this is a group where it seems very important to people to attain power. They've put their focus on this, and there's a kind of steadfast over-pursuit of this. Which came first, we don't really know. And with people with bipolar disorder, we know that if they really value the pursuit of fame and money, they are more likely to have worse symptoms over time. It's not a good focus for them.

How can we create a healthy self-image that isn't based on extrinsic factors like our perceived social status or levels of power?

There really are these two forms of pride. Beyond hubris, there's something that Tracey calls "authentic pride," which is more carefully rooted in what you've accomplished and what things about yourself are important treasure. So instead of just the fight to make sure that you feel like you're superior to other people, authentic pride would involve nurturing along a set of beliefs about why you genuinely do have value, and that there are things about yourself you want to value.

Is there a measurable correlation between our cultural obsession with achieving ever-higher levels of money and power, on the one hand, and the well-documented rise of mental illness on the other?

Countries with extreme levels of income inequality have worse mental health, and that seems well-documented even after you take into account the level of overall level wealth or poverty in the country. It's the disparity that seems particularly toxic to mental health. That's very consistent with the idea that in countries where there are greater levels of striving for money in an individualist way, that's probably bad for mental health. That's one piece that certainly points in that direction, and it's a piece that's well-studied.

We've done a little bit of work on the level of individualistic striving in a country, and we've seen that rates of mania are higher in countries whose cultural values emphasize more individualistic striving. There's some evidence on the table that this is really a concern on a cross-cultural level.

What does your data suggest in terms of possible solutions, or at least different ways of looking at these mental health problems?

We haven't tackled treatment yet, but there's a man in England named Paul Gilbert who does a lot of treatment work. He has designed something called self-compassion therapy, which looks very promising here. It's an attempt to help people learn to provide themselves with more compassion and acceptance.

One way to think about this is that you're paying too much attention to trying to gain other people's admiration, and to have enough power and enough social rank. Sometimes, you're not giving yourself enough compassion and enough room to pursue the things that are really intrinsically meaningful to you. His therapies seem to help people re-anchor themselves in those sort of internally driven ways. It's been shown to work really nicely for depression and anxiety.

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