Popularity: The advantages and disadvantages, status versus congeniality

08/28/2017 05:59 pm ET

Oh dear! I just read something upsetting in the New York Times (by Mitch Prinstein, June 4, 2017). The headline read: “Popular People Live Longer.” How unfair is that? Not only are they popular (already something to be envied by the rest of the unpopulars), but they also have a longevity advantage. I also read that wealthy people live longer. Well, that’s a no brainer: they eat better food, live in safer neighborhoods, and have access to better medical care. The question is: Are they also more popular? Not necessarily, it depends on the obvious inequity as perceived by others around them. It is not only income disparities that seem unfair; it is also what others have, wish we had, but don’t. I remember being envious of the popular girls in high school; I wasn’t one of them. I was this odd girl with a French accent whose parents didn’t speak English. For me it was both: I wanted to be part of their group and I also disliked them for having what I didn’t: a sense of belonging to a group of friends.

The difference between the people who share in the pleasure of a friend’s success and those who resent it is a matter of self-esteem. Those people who feel good about their own accomplishments are not threatened by the accomplishment of others. However, if people feel insecure in their own self-worth, seeing someone else doing well makes them feel less than by comparison. So in order to bolster one’s ego, it becomes necessary to diminish the successful person by finding fault, dismissing their accomplishments, gossiping about them in unflattering ways—all in an effort to feel better about oneself.

We have all looked with either envy or admiration (or both) upon our high-flying friends. If feelings of resentment start occurring, it is an indication that the fear of revealing one’s own inadequacies is being driven into our consciousness. Actually it is not about others doing better; it is about the perception of doing worse by comparison. We can blame discrimination or lack of opportunities, but the fact is that some people are just smarter, more talented, or just know how to work the system better.

Popularity is a double-edged sword. If it is achieved through status, visibility, influence and the number of followers on social media, it does not confer any advantages; in fact, it can do the opposite by inciting envy and the wish to take down the politician, movie star, or CEO. To wit: the pleasure we feel when that famous person stumbles and headlines scream their downfall with unflattering photos and stories. Not so if popularity is linked to “kindness, benevolent leadership, selfless pro-social behavior. It is this kind of popularity that confers the greatest health benefits.”

Conversely, being unpopular, isolated, disconnected from others, or feeling lonely, predicts a shortened lifespan. Survival rates depend on a large network of family and friends. According to psychologist Susan Pinker, even just making eye contact, shaking someone’s hand, or giving someone a high five lowers cortisol levels and releases dopamine, making us less stressed. Part of our brains lights up when we are face-to-face talking with another person. So our attempts at socializing via social media does not provide the same good feelings. Yet, something positive must be happening because we happily keep responding to messages; some of us are even addicted to always being available to the sound of an incoming text or email. A small surge of dopamine occurs when someone texts us, for it means we are remembered, thought about, perhaps liked, maybe even loved… or perhaps we are simply curious!

According to Slavich and Cole, experts in human social genomics at UCLA, our genes “are exquisitely sensitive to social rejection.” Whether we are 5 years old, 15 or 75, parts of our DNA can be turned off or on whenever we are excluded from the playground, or from a social event, or left by someone we loved. Our immune system is then affected; we are less able to fight infections which would explain why so often people who are newly retired get sick (they have lost their peer group), or why newly widowed or divorced people become ill.

Being popular because you’re liked is more important than being popular because of how famous you are. So instead of accumulating friends on Facebook or continuing to increase your social standings, take the time to develop face-to-face friendships, where you can count on one another to be there in times of sadness or failures, as well as times of celebrations…you will live longer.

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