"It's good to be the king," Mel Brooks reminded us several times during History of the World, Part I.
Ah, but not always, according to a recent study that took place at Princeton University. While there can definitely be some major perks attached to the number one position in a hierarchy, there are some serious drawbacks as well.
For nine years, the researchers followed a society of yellow baboons living in the wild in Kenya and made interesting discoveries about the alpha male of the group who leads the pack.1 The other males defer to the alpha, and he gets the choicest food and his pick of the females to mate with. But the stress levels of the alpha male were found to be much higher than those of the beta males who are immediately below him in status. And we all know what stress can do to your health.
The scientists were able to determine hormone levels by testing the feces of the baboons in this community. The alpha and beta males were all found to have similar sex hormone levels, but the alphas consistently had higher stress hormone levels than the betas. Because of their prominent position in baboon society, the alphas had to fend off challenges from multiple beta males looking to usurp their authority and become the alpha. That required initiating some fights to establish their dominance as well as shielding their female mates from the attentions of other males.
The baboons in the study typically held the alpha position for an average of eight months, but the entire period at the top of the heap was spent defending the position. That required a lot of time and energy on the part of the alpha, leaving much less time to concentrate on eating well. And, just like for us people, when baboons aren't eating well, they end up with lower energy levels that affect their performance.
For the betas, conversely, there is very little downside. As the second tier of the hierarchy, they do not experience much aggression from the alpha males unless they are actively challenging them. Instead, it is the lower-ranked members of the group that are the recipients of more of the physical assaults from upper-level members. On a different note, betas may not mate quite as much as the alphas, but there are still plenty of opportunities for them with the females of the group. In the end, it's looking a lot like the Goldilock's syndrome. You don't want to be at the top of the pecking order, and you don't want to be at the bottom of the order. You want to be in the middle of the order, where it's "just right!"
How does this translate to humans? Obviously our society is a little different than that of baboons…despite what some might argue. But, nevertheless, think of some people in commanding positions. Rulers of countries and CEOs of corporations have a lot of power, which confers status and often a great deal of money -- and usually sexual desirability as well. As Henry Kissinger said, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." But stress goes hand in hand with most of that too. So maybe we're not that different after all.
Stress and its effects on people are well documented in Jon Barron's Lessons from the Miracle Doctors in the Chapter titled: The Thought that Kills. When we are stressed, our bodies produce more adrenaline and cortisol. And while it is true that these hormones help mobilize the body's energy reserves to aid in dealing with the stress, this "service" does not come free of charge. Your body has a finite amount of resources, and when the resources allotted to stress are increased, they must correspondingly be decreased someplace else, and that someplace else is often your immune system. As the output of adrenaline and cortisol are increased, the body compensates for the energy expenditure by decreasing the amount of energy available to your immune system. As a result, the number of antibodies in your immune system drop, and both the number and strength of lymphocytes in your immune system also diminish. The bottom line is that stress negatively impacts your immune system.2,3
Effectively, then, stress affects us much like the baboons, leaving us with decreased energy, depleted reserves, and more prone to illness. There definitely may be something to be said for finding your niche in life as a comfortable beta-type, with plenty of creature comforts but not as much stress as the alphas. However, if you are a type-A personality alpha all the way, the key is to find some way to manage the stress in your life and not let it becoming all-consuming because if it does, it will eventually erode your performance and deteriorate your health.
1 Gesquiere, Laurence R.; Learn, Niki H.; Simao, M. Carolina M.; et al. "Life at the Top: Rank and Stress in Wild Male Baboons." Science. 15 July 2011. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 23 August 2011. <http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6040/357.abstract>.
2 Brosschot, J.F., Benschop, R.J., Godaert, G.L.R., Olff, M., De Smet, M., Heijnen, C.J., Ballieux, R.E. 1994. Influence of life stress on immunological reactivity to mild psychological stress. Psychosomatic Medicine. 56: 216-224. <http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/56/3/216.full.pdf+html>
3 McEwen, B.S., Stellar, E. 1993. Stress and the Individual: Mechanism Leading to disease. Arch Intern Med. 1993 Sep 27;153(18):2093-101.<http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8379800>