The thesis of the book is stated clearly on the first page: “Life is a game.”
“As a tribal species, our personal survival has always depended on our being accepted into a supportive community. Powerful emotions compel us to connect: the joy of belongingness and agony of rejection. But once inside a group, we’re rarely content to flop about on its lower rungs. We seek to rise. When we do, and receive acclaim from our people, we feel as if our lives have meaning and purpose and that we’re thriving…So we’re programmed to seek connection and rank: to be accepted into groups and win status within them. It’s part of our nature. It’s the game of human life.”
“These games form our identity. We become the games we play.
Our need for status gives us a thirst for rank and a fear of losing it that deforms our thinking and denies us the possibility of reliable happiness.”
“Status is what researchers call an ‘ultimate’ rather than a ‘proximate’ drive: it’s a kind of mother-motivation, a deep evolutionary cause of many other downstream beliefs and behaviors that’s been favored by selection and is written into the design of our brains.”
The chapter uses the example of Ben Gunn, a man who was in prison for a murder he committed as a juvenile, to show how people will seek to preserve their accumulated status even if the conditions that enable it are absolutely miserable. He was eligible for parole several times and deliberately sabotaged his own release because the purposes he’d built his life in prison around over 30 years would be meaningless to the outside world. “‘I’d go from being a medium fish in a small pond to just another ex-con.’”
Inside, he was a respected jailhouse lawyer. “Ben would help other prisoners fight the system, sometimes tying officers up for months with densely argued appeals to the most trivial misdemeanor charges. He became notorious with the officials.”
“When freedom means expulsion from the meaning you’ve spent your life making, then freedom is hell.”
More generally, we all seek status in our own ways even if we hesitate to admit this ultimate motivation is what fuels our interests. “It contradicts the heroic story we like to tell of ourselves…[Proximate motivations] are an essential impulse that’s been selected by evolution and laid down in the wiring of our brains.” The group or the place, even the scale, matters little; people will cling onto status and meaning where they can find it.
“If our need for status is fundamental, this discomfort we feel about admitting it may seem surprising. But we tend to believe the brain’s heroic story, not the subconscious realpolitik of the game. To admit to being motivated by improving our rank risks making others think less of us, which loses us rank. Even admitting to ourselves can make us feel reduced. So our awareness of our desire for status eats itself.”
Our ultimate goals are easily obscured by our proximate needs. However, feeling connected to a community is essential for individual flourishing.
“Whenever we’re in the presence of humans, consciously or unconsciously, we’re being judged, measured. And their judgments matter. Wherever psychologists look, they find a remarkably powerful link between status and well-being…Attainment of status or its loss was ‘the strongest predictor of long-term positive and negative feelings.”