Unhappy? You should get into the rat race

Rush: why you need and love the rat race

BY TODD G. BUCHHOLZ
PENGUIN

I MADE a mistake. I changed my mind,” says the first line of former White House adviser and hedge fund manager Todd G. Buchholz’s new book, Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race. “Several years ago I began to write a book about happiness and the economy. It was to be called Tail Hunters: How Americans Are Chasing Success and Losing Their Souls,” it continues. “Everyone was expending so much energy trying to become the fittest, cleverest or richest person and I thought it was driving us crazy,” he tells me. “The so-called happiness science seemed to suggest that it was. Then I looked at the research and it was exactly wrong. It’s the effort and the endeavour that makes us feel alive.”

True to his word, Buchholz had rushed out of a panel debate on Kazakhstani investment to meet me. His trip to London is clearly not just a book tour.

“I realised I was wrong about this after I got this wonderful job at the White House. I had a fancy office and all sorts of lobbyists and congressmen wanted to meet me, but within a week I was miserable. I had found out that there had been a meeting over the weekend that I was not invited to. I had lost my feeling of self-respect. I wanted to work over the weekend. I wanted to feel wanted.”
This realisation took Buchholz back to the books. “I just realised that the happiness science is selfish and individualised – and all the research shows that we need the competition of the rat race to get the dopamine and serotonin chemicals in our brains flowing – those are the hormones that make us feel happy.”

Buchholz’s biggest gripe with “happiness science” it is its attachment to a bygone age. “It seems to draw on this idea that man needs to be in as natural a state as possible. As if the whole of the 20th century has been a big mistake and if we just repealed the whole thing and sat around a camp fire holding hands we’d be happy. We’d be sweaty, yes. Sooty, perhaps. But not happy.”

Buchholz then reels off reams of evidence on why this is not the case. “Just look at any study on primitive groups throughout the ages. Societies that led more natural lives, that traded less and produced less were all more violent,” he concludes.

He takes a similar approach to the lethargy of retirement. “It makes you stupid,” he says bluntly. Again, drawing on studies: “Researchers have interviewed 60-year-olds across the globe, presenting them with lists of items and asking the interviewees to repeat them. Then half an hour later the researchers ask them to repeat the list again. In countries such as France where the retirement age is lower, the interviewees find it harder.”

He doesn’t mince his words on on early retirement: “These people think they are going to sit in sidewalk cafes discussing Le Monde and doing crosswords when they retire, but they won’t even be able to find the cafes anymore because their brains will be so idle.”

American actress Lily Tomlin once said: “The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing after all.

“I don’t have anything against people who do yoga. What I object to is the idea that we need to make our regular daily life more like a holiday, that we need to step off the treadmill and meditate. That’s wrong. We should not fool ourselves into thinking the capitalist system has corrupted us and made us coarse, evil and unforgiving. The research shows that it actually makes us happy. We need to compete and take risks to feel alive.”

Todd G. Buchholz