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The New Original Sin: Capitalism
When happiness gurus get on a roll, they take individual advice and extend it to all of society: Not only should you take a timeout, but the entire economy should be given a timeout, or the economic equivalent of Ambien. Shut down capitalism and replace it with a kibbutz for three hundred million people. Why? To prevent envy and to drain our competitive juices. The happiness gurus believe that competition is cancerous, eating away at our souls and our chances for happiness. If we could just stomp out competition, we could achieve self-realization and bliss. Rather than relying on policy non sequiturs to achieve happiness, we would be better off dressing up like Druids and prancing around the rocks of Stonehenge hoping that it will help us pay our mortgage bills. (Yes, such tours are available.)
In fact, if you would like to visit an ancient economy stuck in Stone Age splendor, plan a trip to Bhutan. This little nation, with a per capita GDP about equal to the summer take-home pay of a kid's lemonade stand in Des Moines ($1,400), is tucked in the Himalayas and has swallowed almost all the happiness potions. The king has forsworn gross national product, and instead requires his country to pursue "gross national happiness." The king banned Coke and Pepsi (so smugglers sneak in the contraband). There is a national uniform for professionals, most buildings look the same, and "tourists are taken to all the same places and served the same food," wrote one visitor, who couldn't find Starbucks or espresso but did discover a valuable cache of Nescafe instant packets. Bhutan also mandates Buddhism as a state religion, so no one can be envious of anyone else's creed. It appears that gross national happiness requires a lot of uniformity and government control in order to beat out the urge to compete.
I admit that now is not a popular time to link happiness with competition. I understand the rage in Western countries against the failings of modern life, especially following the financial market meltdowns of 2008 and 2009. Didn't hypercompetitive bankers lead to the ruin of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns? Didn't supercompetitive brokers baying for bucks in trading rooms nearly bankrupt the world? Didn't reckless oil drillers lead to a devastating spill in 2010? So why not join the globalization protestors and hurl rocks into plate-glass windows at Starbucks? Maybe that will bring us joy. After all, as the financial markets thrash us and threaten our jobs, we are tempted to give up on modern life. So long to 401(k)s, ski vacations, and bucking for that salary hike that I wasn't going to get anyway. I sometimes wonder if Sarah Palin boasts of her gun skills because she worries that the only industries left in America will be hunting and gathering.
No doubt, amid the financial wreckage, we all felt cheated, by the CEO crooks, the mortgage broker morons, and the short sellers. And we feel a natural yearning to go back to simpler times, to some Eden that exists in our Jungian memory. Maybe throwing rocks will remind us of how jolly we were during the Stone Age.
But "Kumbayah" does not work. Sitting around a metaphoric campfire, holding hands and singing communal songs does not make human beings happy. Sweaty, yes. Sooty, perhaps. But not happy.
More tourists have trampled on Thoreau's Walden Pond snapping photos than have seriously considered giving up their cell phones to pick berries. We are delighted to try pomegranate juice -- in the hope of finding the secret to clear skin and lower blood pressure -- but virtually no American will plant his own bush and give up television. We may embrace symbols of a more homemade life, but these are tokens of wishful thinking, not titanic changes of substance.
Are we just selfish hypocrites who have fallen too deeply in love with a synthetic commercial world, with all its gadgets and traffic? Happiness books typically implore us to surrender our raw capitalistic drives, to levy taxes on high earners, and to derail the rat race before the entire world turns into a human-size Habitrail, plastic and pointless. And speaking of a Habitrail, these Edenists claim we are spinning on what has become known as the hedonic treadmill, so that the more we have the more we want. Typical advice: "Don't worry, be frugal." Or reach for the Prozac.
In my book, Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race, I take on a seemingly preposterous task, employing the latest research in neuroscience and behavioral economics to argue the opposite: It is the race itself -- sloppy, risky, and tense -- that can bring us happiness. It is the very pursuit of love, new knowledge, wealth, and status that literally delivers the rush, lights up our brains, releases dopamine, and ignites our passion. Furthermore, I'm going to argue that the cause and effect between competition and happiness is hardwired into everyone of us. Some of the results will surprise you. Competition makes people more fair, and it also makes them taller.
Neuroscientists report that when a person begins to take a risk, whether it's gambling or ginning up the nerve to ask a pretty girl to the prom, his left prefrontal cortex lights up, signaling a natural high. Alpha waves and oxygenated blood surge to the brain. Sitting alone in a pup tent does not yield the same effects. Likewise, our competitive juices cannot be separated from our desire to learn more. Ironically, those who deride competition are often the first to exalt education. They seem to have images of Plato sitting on a log. I exalt education, too, but it is foolish to pretend that desires do not press us forward to learn more, to gain more knowledge, and therefore to get smarter. The contented do not grow smarter, they grow moss.
© 2013 Todd G. Buchholz
Todd G. Buchholz, author of Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race is a former White House director of economic policy, award-winning teacher at Harvard, managing director of the Tiger hedge fund, and was a fellow at Cambridge University in 2009. He is also a founder of Two Oceans Management, as well as coproducer of the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit Jersey Boys. A regular contributor to NPR's Marketplace, he appears monthly on PBS'sNightly Business Report and his book New Ideas from Dead Economists is used in universities throughout the world. Buchholz has also written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Reader's Digest. He lives with his wife and daughters in Southern California.