The Price of Success? Your Health


Study hard. Work hard. Pay your dues, and anyone can be a success. This is the classic advice imparted to those striving for a better life, a prescription that generally fails to account for other factors that inhibit upward mobility in people who start out life in an economically insecure household.

The concept of upward mobility is a cornerstone of the American Dream. For those who achieve that dream, climbing to a higher socioeconomic status can cost decades of time and effort at the very least. It can also take a toll on a person’s health, according to research published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Based on a multi-year study of nearly 300 rural African Americans teenagers transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, researchers found that those who started life in a disadvantaged background but exhibited higher levels of self-control showed reduced depression and less aggression. On the downside, those same individuals also have cells that are “biologically old, relative to their chronological age,” lead author Gregory E. Miller, professor of psychology in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement. Despite being psychologically resilient, these highly disciplined individuals are suffering physically.

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Self-control is a strong determinant of success, as the authors write in their paper. It’s essential to setting objectives, following through with plans and resisting temptations on the path to fulfilling those goals. Children who exhibit greater self-control do better in school, earn higher salaries and save more money.

Children who start out in life in lower socioeconomic backgrounds face higher barriers to success. The quality of education available to them isn’t as high, and they often spend fewer years in school. Violence, teenage pregnancy and substance abuse are all potential pitfalls on the road to success, and self discipline can help navigate through those hurdles.

Exhibiting the level of discipline needed to succeed and rise out of a low socioeconomic status environment isn’t just psychologically challenging, but also metabolically stressful. Status-seekers beginning in low socioeconomic backgrounds with high levels of self-control faced greater health risks, as evident in levels of obesity, blood pressure and stress hormones among this group. These early indicators could signal much more severe health consequences later in life.

Conversely, those with privileged socioeconomic backgrounds as well as high levels of self control showed both favorable psychological and physiological outcomes.

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There are a number of potential explanations for this disparity, but none of them is provable at this point. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may simply have fewer opportunities to take breathers or don’t have the same support networks to ease their burden. Success may bring them into environments where they feel alienated, such as those who might be the first in their families to attend college, triggering stress reactions, which then affect health.

As the issue of income equality continues to draw attention in the wake of the Great Recession, particularly with a national election coming up next year, studies increasingly show the enormous difficulties facing anyone trying to climb from one social station to the next in the United States. A Harvard study released last year, titled “Equality of Opportunity,” found that while the mobility rate has held steady for decades, escaping poverty in the United States is more difficult than in other developed nations like Canada or those in Western Europe. An American born at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder has an 8 percent chance of working up to the top, the study found.

Taken together, both studies suggest that while upward mobility is still alive in the United States, it’s not exactly well, and, when it comes to preliminary health indicators, neither are those fortunate and dedicated enough to experience it.