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Are powerful people less stressed?

STANFORD (US) — With great power comes less stress, according to a study of high-ranking government and military officials.

A higher rank was associated with less anxiety and lower levels of a stress hormone, researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We live as social beings in a stratified society,” says James Gross, a Stanford University psychology professor. “It’s our relative status in a group that disproportionately influences our happiness and well-being.”

Specifically, a growing literature suggests that more power is associated with less stress. The Whitehall studies of health in the British civil service showed that higher governmental rank was strongly correlated with lower mortality rates.

Stanford biology professor Robert Sapolsky’s measurements of the stress hormone cortisol in baboons showed lower levels of the hormone in high-ranking troop members.

The new work by researchers at Stanford and Harvard University examined both cortisol measurements and self-reported anxiety levels within a rarely studied group: high-ranking government and military officials enrolled in a Harvard executive leadership program.

Although evaluating stress is itself complex—cortisol levels and reported anxiety are not necessarily correlated—the researchers found that high-ranking leaders were less stressed according to both measures. The strength of the relationship was directly related to rank: the higher the position, the lower the stress.

In charge and in control

To tease out the specifics of these results, the researchers asked, as Gross put it, “What exactly about a job makes it a leadership role?”

The critical element seems to be a sense of control. The connection between power and tranquility was dependent on the total number of subordinates a leader had and on the degree of authority or autonomy a job conferred.

It’s possible, in other words, that the feeling of being in charge of one’s own life more than makes up for the greater amount of responsibility that accompanies higher rungs on the social ladder.

The present study is correlational, meaning it is unable to say whether leadership leads to low stress levels, or whether people who are predisposed to feel little stress are more likely to be leaders. But Gross and Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, view the study as an initial look at a topic that has relevance to anyone who lives in our inherently hierarchical modern society.

“By looking at real leaders, people who really have a lot of real-world responsibility, we can learn a lot about stress and health in general,” Gross says.

Source: Stanford University

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7 Comments

  1. David Parks

    “unable to say whether leadership leads to low stress levels, or whether people who are predisposed to feel little stress are more likely to be leaders” – Bravo for a news article clarifying the difference between correlation and causality! It’s incredibly common for this point to be overlooked in press articles.

  2. Joe

    Yes, but only after they eat some sugar.

  3. Tay

    if u think people who have more power have less stress, then how do you explain the discoloration of hair, loss of hair, heart attacks, choloesterals, diabetes, kidney failure and stroke on world leaders. When you have more power, people tend depend on you, always relying on you to do something. If you mess up, its all over. Thats why you your childhood is better than your adulthood. when you’re a child especially toddlers and infants, you dont need to do anything, no work, no hw, no worries

  4. George

    Nice tie in between Sapolsky’s work with baboons and the human work reported in the article. it is gratifying to see carefully conducted research across species.

  5. Cris

    This is a no brainer….anyone knows that those higher up on the chain of command sit back and relax, play lots of golf, take long lunches, andddddd delegate work to those lower down….those are the stressed out people….busting their asses for those higher up. Take a look at your lowly ditch digger….by the time he is 50, he is all bent over, shuffling along, suffering from a plethora of ailments, whilst his supervisor enjoys a better life, stands around with the rest of the chiefs, and lives longer.

    Yes, we are all prone to ailments that we have no control over, however, more money typically ensures better health, better care, medicines, surgeries via higher education and knowledge, etc…….whilst the lowly ditch digger suffers from lesser education, ignorance, and acceptance of his plight.

    It is all related to where you sit on the totem pole.

  6. Tracey

    Here is an excellent documentary which details Saposky’s work, as well as others’ cross species research. It can be viewed for free here:

    Stress: Portrait of a Killer

    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/stress-portrait-of-a-killer/

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