High school can be brutal on kids that don't quite fit in. But if you think the bullying and social isolation of not being popular is bad, you should see what happens to the captain of the football team or chief Mean Girl after they graduate.
Science actually suggests that, as nasty as high school social competition can be, you should probably be relieved if you (or your kids) weren't exactly homecoming king or queen.
The dangers of chasing cool.
Just think about what actually makes kids "cool" in high school, a recent PsyBlog post urges readers. The most popular teens aren't usually the ones with well adjusted personalities, kind natures, and sensible life goals. They're the ones partying too much, dating too young, and generally making others feel bad about themselves. Do people like that end up winning in life?
Personal experience suggests no and so do studies, PsyBlog points out. One recent (if small study) that followed a diverse group 183 teens who attended public high school for a decade, starting in middle school, found that "by the age of 22, these 'cool kids' are rated as less socially competent than their peers. They were also more likely to have substance abuse problems and to be engaged in criminal activities," the blog reports.
"It appears that while so-called 'cool' teens' behavior might have been linked to early popularity, over time, these teens needed more and more extreme behaviors to try to appear cool, at least to a subgroup of other teens, so they became involved in more serious criminal behavior and alcohol and drug use as adolescence progressed," the study's author Joseph P. Allen commented. Even their once starstruck peers soon realized this sort of behavior isn't cool at all.
Lessons for adults
These findings might be comforting for teens (and their worried parents) currently suffering through the trial by fire that ninth grade can be, but it also has lessons to teach those of us who are decades beyond graduation, researchers studying the subject note.
Work by Yale psychologist and author Mitch Prinstein shows that too many of us are permanently scarred by the experiences of our adolescence and continue to chase the high school definition of "coolness" (i.e. visibility and social status over others) well into adulthood. Just think of all the people you see on social media desperately trying to come across as the most popular kid in town.
"Throughout adulthood, we have a choice to pursue greater likeability or greater status - a decision made so much more difficult by the growing number of platforms (reality TV, social media, etc.) designed to help us gain status. In fact, our focus on easily-obtained status now is perhaps stronger than at any other point in human history. That's a problem," Pristine says, because "research findings indicate that having high status leads to later aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair."
In short, science shows that continuing to play the high school popularity game into adulthood will make you nasty and miserable. What should you do instead? Decades of research comes to a fairly straightforward conclusion - focus on meaningful relationships and being of service instead. No, it's not cool. But it will make you happier.