Desires are not biologically given, but rather are formed socially. Socrates (or perhaps it was Plato, since we don’t know where the one ends and the other begins) saw in this the conditions for our personal growth. But René Girard sees mainly its negative aspect — and so did Karl Marx, who well understood the nature of relative comparisons. He wrote, “A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. … Our wants and pleasures have their origin in society; we therefore measure them in relation to society….Since they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature.”
The imagination can have immense, direct impact on reality. If your felt needs were based on reality, you’d be satisfied with the small house, regardless of the size and opulence of the house next door. But your desires are not realistic but rather imaginary in origin. It is only the imagination that makes you crave more because other people have more.
Yet I should not say it’s only the imagination, for imaginary needs can be even stronger than real ones. In order to demonstrate the significance of entertainment in our lives, I have to show the power of the imagination, for entertainment influences only our imagination. It does not alter our real circumstances and is therefore often discounted as trivial.
Make no mistake: The imagination is vastly consequential. Whatever shapes the imagination shapes the world as we experience it.
Now I’ll deliver today’s homily, which will make the point even more convincingly than Marx’s little metaphor about the small house and the palace. This story is about a study of movie_stars — people who do live in palaces, but who are nevertheless profoundly affected by the size of the neighbor’s house. Indeed, their relative rankings of professional status evidently determines the longevity of these privileged people.
Two University of Toronto epidemiologists carried out the research. They obtained the biographies of all the film actors who had been nominated for, or had won, Oscars in the Academy Awards through the year 2000, as well as another group of film actors of about the same age who had not been nominated. Almost half of the 1649 actors had died. Those who had won Academy Awards lived almost four years longer than those who had been nominated without winning. Some actors had won several Oscars, and they lived even longer than single winners. However, merely being nominated more than once did not increase life expectancy, nor did the experience of acting in a larger number of films without being nominated.
This is the obvious conclusion: High recognition for outstanding professional competence (which is judged by comparative ranking rather than objective criteria) can make people live longer and healthier lives — even if they already were doing outstandingly well.
Four years is a huge difference in life expectancy. As the researcher, Donald Redelmeier, notes, “If you were to cure all cancersin all people in North America for all time, you would add maybe 3.5 years to life expectancy.”
Social status then has an enormous, direct influence on health. This has been known for many years when it comes to whole populations. Understandably, rich people live longer than the poor. But these films stars are not poor, yet status affects them too. Is it stress? Does it hurt an actor to be nominated for an Oscar, but not win it? We don’t know. But in later entries I’ll explore how our own health is affected by vicariously feeling the emotions of imaginary, fictional characters.