Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race
Learning to love the rodent wheel
By Steven Martinovich
In 1987 Wall Street's Gord Gekko famously stated that "Lunch is for wimps." In the intervening two decades it appears that most people have taken that to heart with longer work hours, fewer vacation days and lives so busy it would have boggled the minds of someone only a few decades ago. Most of us say we hate the pace of modern life and would dearly love to gear down. Few ever do despite the fact that they may be materially able to do so. Instead we seem to get busier and busier, juggling TPS reports with soccer practice, a deluge of work email with volunteering during the week. And we follow that up with weekends filled with productive activities rather than enjoy the hammock hanging forlornly in the backyard. Even our retirements are less shuffleboard and more work.
And you probably need that insane schedule even if you refuse to admit it, argues Todd G. Buchholz, economics professor and author of Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race. Buchholz contends that most of us actually enjoy the race and that it actually makes us happy and healthier. Competition spurs us on, makes us smarter and delivers a rush of victory while relaxing in the aforementioned hammock ossifies, can actually make you dumber and fails to do much for us spiritually. You might not want to skip lunch – we are working longer days after all and you need that energy – but Buchholz argues happiness involves activity and measuring ourselves against each other and you can only do that by moving, whether intellectually or physically.
It's an argument that needs a lot of ammunition to persuade those of us who would rather go fishing then spend another day rushing and Buchholz brings everything he can carry in support of his position. Surveying fields that cover everything from evolutionary biology to economics, Buchholz argues that there are a myriad of benefits to a busy life. Although competition has long been viewed as a Hobbesian proposition, Buchholz believes that it brings us closer thanks to benefits to the economy, increased emotional and physical health and material benefits for everyone in society. Happiness? Buchholz argues that worrying about happiness is a by-product of luxury – the man looking for his next meal does not have the time to think about whether he's happy.
That luxury can also be expressed in terms of progress. If we lived what Buchholz refers to as the "Edenist" lifestyle, there would be no such thing as progress – merely intellectual, material and societal stagnation. Though we imagine a contentment with a simpler life, even a casual study of history shows that sort of existence – even one from a mere century ago – shows starkly shorter and poorer lives, intellectual deprivation for most in society, and profound inequality in political and economic terms. The rat race has made us equals by rejecting a commune-style existence in favour of one that challenges us all to do more. The benefits, at least for those who have opted for it, have been an explosion in wealth, longevity and opportunity.
Although Rush makes a strong case for a busy life, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Buchholz might be the modern equivalent of the slave convinced he should be happy for the work he's given. While Buchholz doesn't make the ludicrous argument that it must be all work, and no play, Rush is a fairly one-sided effort. All the research and theories that he brings to bear are in support of the rat race with little emphasis on that occasional need to get away from it all and do nothing. After all, there are many studies arguing that the creative juices can flow when we're doing nothing productive and at least one study that links retirement later in life to a shorter lifespan. And as much as some of us may enjoy work, we also enjoy doing something we have no real competitive need to do.
At the end of the day whether the arguments that Rush makes are successful largely depends on the reader. After all, if you've spent a lifetime working and enjoying long hours at work Buchholz validates you while those who stress the "life" in work-life balance likely view him as another victim of a Protestant work ethic that's gone out of control. Regardless, Rush is a valiant and very enjoyable effort that should provoke debate between the competing camps – though Buchholz would argue that the relaxers would likely not bother to show up for the debate unless it was during regular work hours.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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