Why working is the secret to happiness
Jenna Goudreau, On Wednesday July 6, 2011
I like yoga. The few times I do it a year, I feel warmer, more flexible and rather proud of myself for investing in my personal happiness (though I’ve often had the sneaking suspicion that jogging would have been a better workout and more cost effective). In a recent fit of daring, I even took an aerial yoga class—attempting to calm my breathing as I dangled upside down from fabric suspended from the ceiling. Clearly, I was on the path to inner bliss.
The most impactful part of a good yoga class, at least I am told, is the meditation at the end. Your heartbeat slows. Your body is at rest. Your mind empties. Well, it’s supposed to anyway. Whenever I try to clear my thoughts through meditation, I end up thinking about dinner or tomorrow’s to-do list or what might be wrong with me that I can’t stop thinking.
Thus it comes as some relief to learn that yoga, relaxation, meditation and stress-free living are not clear paths to happiness. On the contrary, economist Todd Buchholz believes that peace and stillness might make you miserable. In his new book, Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race, Buchholz outlines why he’s decided that work is the secret to happiness.
The former White House director of economic policy and Harvard teacher set out to write a book about how Americans were destroying themselves by chasing success and achievement. Soon, however, he realized that it was that very pursuit that makes us happiest.
“Behavioural psychologists and yoga masters are flat wrong,” Buchholz told me. “The idea that our entire society needs to de-stress is treacherous.”
Despite the perception that work and stress stunt our happiness, Buchholz says our brains are wired to thrive in the rat race. He points to the frontal lobe, which evolved to plan for the future and craves forward thinking and motion. If we were to step off the wheel, retiring to an endless beach and flow of daiquiris, we would resort to “a life of stasis” that would “confound and frustrate the frontal lobe.” Retirement, he says, ages us and causes brain function to decline.
Similarly, Buchholz dismisses the idea that smiling and serenity will boost our spirits. Rather he believes that rushing around and frequent activity converts into internal energy that revives us. Dopamine and serotonin—the body’s natural feel-good drugs—flood our systems when we take a risk or begin a new challenge.
And all that society-wrenching competition going on in the workplace? Happiness inducing, Buchholz claims. “Typical academics would say the opposite of competition is cooperation,” he says. “My argument is that competition can lead to cooperation. Human beings created cooperative hunting teams because they were competing against the elements. Competition is what drives people to improve their lives.”
The workplace, then, is not a cesspool of greed, rivalry and political maneuvering. It’s an arena that forces you to compete against the industry standard, your coworkers and even yourself, which ultimately drives innovation, creativity and personal growth.