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Research finds those at top are not as stressed as commonly believed

WASHINGTON -- Management consultants say 60 percent of senior executives experience high stress and anxiety on a regular basis, and a thriving industry of motivational speakers teaches business leaders how to manage their corrosive burden of stress. But just how uneasy lies the head that wears the crown?

Not so uneasy, it turns out.

A new study reveals that those who sit atop the nation's political, military, business and nonprofit organizations are actually pretty chill. Compared with people of similar age, gender and ethnicity who haven't made it to the top, leaders pronounced themselves less stressed and anxious. And their levels of cortisol, a hormone that circulates at high levels in the chronically stressed, told the same story.

The source of the leaders' relative serenity was pretty simple: control.

Compared with workers who toil in lower echelons of the American economy, the leaders studied by a group of Harvard University researchers enjoyed control over their schedules, their daily living circumstances, their financial security, their enterprises and their lives.

“Leaders possess a particular psychological resource — a sense of control — that may buffer against stress,” the research team reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Though the finding appeared to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, it came as no surprise to those who have studied the role that social status plays in the well-being of our primate relatives.

Baboons and monkeys who rise to positions of power in their social groups show lower levels of anxiety and stress, so long as their status is not under constant challenge. A recent study of female macaque monkeys demonstrated that rising and falling through the social ranks not only dialed their stress up and down, it turned genes on and off in ways that can powerfully influence health.

“It's clear that having a sense of control is protective against stress,” said Nichole Lighthall, who researches stress and its effects at Duke University and was not involved in the new study.

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