Race for the top is wearing society down

April is a month that separates the best from the best.

For high school seniors, this means receiving the thick or the thin envelope in what was described as one of the most competitive college admissions seasons ever. For those of us who have already been accepted, this month means going through yet another round of applications for competitive internships, fellowships and other accolades. Now, with Tap Night coming soon for Yale’s secret societies, one can only wonder when the madness will end.

Competition is not inherently bad, but it has gotten out of control. The old American Dream of simply raising a family no longer suffices. Instead, we now need a family, a Yale degree, a Rhodes scholarship, a six-figure salary and so much more. This never-ending pursuit of status symbols not only is misguided, but also results in hidden side effects for our health and that of our society.

In his book “The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity,” Dr. Michael Marmot outlines the array of scientific evidence connecting social status to health. Bosses live longer than their workers, and those with doctoral degrees live longer than those with bachelor’s degrees (even after controlling for income). Even highly competitive awards and honors may have an impact on life expectancy. A study of Oscar-winning actors and actresses, for example, shows that the winners live on average four years longer than the losers.

Before you start applying to doctoral programs and prestigious scholarships, however, take a moment to reflect on how bizarre this association is. Why should awards like the Oscars have anything to do with health?

For one, many of these status symbols aren’t inherently satisfying. Consider the recent controversy reported by the News about a pair of Harvard Rhodes scholars who were lamenting the fact that (much like other Harvard students) their decision to study at Oxford was based on name value rather than educational value. While I feel that at Yale we are fortunate to get both prestige and quality, even a Yale degree is not a guaranteed ticket to future happiness.

Even more, however, as the talented Gina Glockson learned earlier this month on “American Idol,” selection processes often are fickle, especially when you happen to be competing against Sanjaya Malakar and his “Vote for the Worst” coalition. As a result, it’s hard to postulate that there aren’t any physiological differences between the winners and losers in this game of life.

So what’s the underlying cause of these disparities? Most likely stress and anxiety, according to researchers Donald Redelmeier and Sheldon Singh, who have studied the Oscar winners. Closer investigation shows that the effect of winning the award becomes statistically insignificant for screenwriters and other professionals who are essentially forgotten in the national media buzz. The more society makes us worry about these status symbols, it seems, the greater the health consequences.

The concerns of Yalies and movie stars, however, are minimal compared to the devastating impacts that our hyper-competitiveness has on the rest of society. We at the top of the totem pole naturally think there’s no problem, but the fact is that as we set the standard for success increasingly out of reach, the gap between the haves and the have-nots also grows.

The problem of inequality remains persistent worldwide, but it is particularly acute in the United States. We say that we are a land of equal opportunity, but the statistics seem to tell a different story. The Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality in a country, remains significantly higher in the U.S. than in any other developed country.

Unfortunately, a high Gini coefficient is also linked to poor health. According to the 2004 Human Development Index, the United States ranks 30th in the world in life expectancy, behind Cuba, Chile and most other developed countries. The more telling statistic, however, is the fact that only three of the 29 countries ahead of the U.S. were more unequal. The problem isn’t that the poor in the U.S. are poorer in terms of dollars than the poor in other countries, but rather that the social inequality between the rich and the poor exacerbates health issues.

It’s time to end the needless suffering caused by inequality in our world. Rather than focusing on individual accolades in the zero-sum contest for social status, it’s time to turn our efforts outward toward building a community in which people can be healthy. This is not some utopian dream, but it does require a fundamentally different perspective. So, when societies come to tap with their claims of instant success, my thoughts will be elsewhere.

Robert Nelb is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.