Books: Why chasing money and success makes us happy

And why trying to raise the national GWB (general well-being) is a crock.

(Photo: Natalie Castellino)

A few years ago, Todd Buchholz started researching a new book. A decorated Harvard economics instructor, a former White House policy adviser, and the author of bestsellers like Market Shock and New Ideas from Dead Economists, Buchholz found himself surrounded by people he deemed to be seeking tawdry material gain at the expense of real quality of life. He believed that the “frenzy” of modern life was stressing us out, creating an almost structural unhappiness in North American society.

Popular opinion seemed to support his premise, with a wave of recent tracts arguing that even a strong economy made us miserable. Buchholz’s was to be another voice in the chorus arguing that we cheat our true selves when we compromise happiness in the quest for a raise, a promotion or the next big deal.

That book never got written. As he researched his subject, exploring economics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, Buchholtz became convinced that much of the modern happiness project was a crock—not just unhelpful economically, but unhealthy and unnatural. What he’s written instead is Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race (Hudson Street Press), and it couldn’t have landed further from its author’s original concept.

To be fair, Buchholtz isn’t exactly a recovering socialist utopian; he’s a hedge fund manager, and his White House service came under Bush 43. But he’s only recently come to the belief that competition is actually “integral to our beings,” in contrast to the preachings of what he calls the “Edenists.” “We feel a natural yearning to go back to simpler times, to some Eden that exists in our Jungian memory,” he writes. But the burgeoning happiness industry takes that yearning and twists it into a belief that “if we could just stomp out competition, we could achieve self-realization and bliss.”

The notion of measuring the GWB—general well-being—alongside the GDP, once the near exclusive province of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, has recently gained traction with David Cameron’s Tories in Britain. Meanwhile, the body of literature analyzing and measuring happiness is growing and increasingly popular: from 1991 to 1995, Buchholtz writes, there were just four economics papers published on the topic; between 2001 and 2005, more than 100 appeared. Most of this research backs what happiness gurus have been telling us since before R. H. Tawney wrote about The Acquisitive Society a century ago: that the constant pursuit of more and better stuff—higher salaries, privilege and the baubles that accompany success—doesn’t result in increased happiness.

Fine, says Buchholtz. But on both policy or personal fronts, there’s no real argument those things make us unhappy, either. If anything, there’s plenty of research tying happiness to economic freedom and labour mobility. And in individual jobs, he writes, happiness has more to do with personal control than with compensation. “Someone who earns peanuts at the zoo, but who decides when to feed the elephants and when to take his own break, may be happier than…the harried dentist who has to ask his office manager when he can slip out to the bathroom.”

What we’re naturally inclined to do with that personal control, in professional and entrepreneurial settings as well as in private life, is to get things done. On a biological level, Buchholz believes, happiness is linked to achievement. “The truth is, most people have a deep need to work and to create.”

That stems in part from the presence in our brains of a well-developed frontal lobe, an evolutionary advantage we hold over the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s the part of the brain that allows us to think about the future, and enables all that accompanies such thoughts: self-control, planning, hope. Buchholtz points to the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who estimates that Homo sapiens spends about 12% of their time thinking about the future; earlier Homo species lacked that ability, and were thus stuck in what Gilbert calls a “permanent present.”

Because our brains can conceive a future, we’re wired to want to make progress toward it: our brain “tells us we will be happy only if we have some forward momentum in our lives,” Buchholtz argues. “A life of staring endlessly at the surf armed with a pina colada will confound and frustrate the frontal lobe.”

That’s not to say that Buchholz buys the old Gordon Gekko mantra that greed is good. He doesn’t believe that we’re driven to put in long hours by rapaciousness and envy. Instead, it’s the marriage of our need to feel progress with our ability to hope that leads us to want to do more, achieve more, and that plays into our concept of self-esteem. While there are surely some who are distracted by the “hedonistic treadmill,” most of us—by competing for money, professional standing, love—are gunning for self-respect and the esteem of peers. “Our competitive drive is not ultimately about showing off to others,” he writes. “It is about showing ourselves that we deserve to live, and then to live on through our progeny.”

Rush casts its net wide; there’s a macroeconomic argument woven through the book that makes the case against taxation structures that are redistributive to the point of dampening the urge to succeed. Buchholz also argues against policies like France’s 35-hour cap on the workweek, conceived to promote a better quality of life among its citizens.

But what’s most resonant here is the message at the individual level—that the urge you feel to compete, to accomplish things in your life, be it curing disease or earning enough for that sports car, is a natural thing. “You will come no closer to a blithe spirit by apologizing for your complex and contradictory human drives,” Buchholtz writes. And you’ll find far greater happiness in managing them than in trying to repress them.

Executive summaries

Why Are We Bad At Picking Good Leaders: A Better Way to Evaluate Leadership Potential (Jossey-Bass)
Jeffrey Cohn and Jay Moran

We don’t choose our leaders poorly, Cohn and Moran argue, because we’re starved for good choices. We should accept some responsibility. We promote the wrong people through the system, be it corporate or civic. We consistently look for the wrong things in our leaders, or mistake qualities like charisma for more meaningful assets, such as vision. That has an effect all the way up the leadership ladder.

Both formerly of Yale’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute and now working in succession planning and leadership training, Cohn and Moran have written seven case studies, each illustrating one of the essential attributes they believe every leader needs: integrity, empathy, emotional intelligence, vision, judgment, courage and passion. More than that, however, they offer suggestions about how to evaluate each of those traits in a potential leader, tying courage, for example, not just to a leader’s commitment to core values and a track record of navigating challenges, but to patience. The result is a complex and nuanced picture of what makes a good leader, and a useful guide to selecting one.

The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers (PublicAffairs)
James O’Shea

From the first, you know that the author is compromised. “Thousands of friends and colleagues the world over have lost jobs because of the way the industry has been managed,” writes investigative journalist and former Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief O’Shea in his introduction. He lost his, too, after distressed asset specialist Sam Zell took over the Chicago Tribune, and subsequently the Times.

His proximity to the story is both a strength and a hindrance. There’s a depth of reporting here that suggests he took this assignment personally, and he makes a compelling argument that the interests of a publicly traded corporation and a Wall Street culture hell-bent on wringing every last efficiency from a business aren’t compatible with the stock in trade of the journalism industry—reporting that earns and safeguards the public trust. “The lack of investment, the greed, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy and downright arrogance of people who put their interests ahead of the public’s,” writes O’Shea, have decimated the newspaper sector more than the Internet ever could have. But why, then, are even the mogul-free papers struggling desperately these days? This is a riveting j’accuse, but it ignores that vital question.

The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin)
Rachel Shteir

Shoplifting cost American retailers $11.7 billion in 2009, representing about 35% of the industry’s “shrink”—inventory lost to theft and error—and costing the average retailer about 1.5% of profits. When that percentage grows much above 2%, Shteir writes, “it can lead to layoffs or even bankruptcy.” Some estimates suggest that nearly one in 10 Americans are active shoplifters. And because the retail industry’s profit margins can be so thin, “the theft of one $5 heirloom tomato from Whole Foods can require sales of up to $500 to break even.”

But this is a cultural history of shoplifting, not a hard analysis of its effects on bottom lines. That makes it no less interesting. Shteir offers an account of the crime’s evolution from Elizabethan London, where the term “shoplifting” first appeared, through the present day, when the economic downturn is being linked to a big spike in consumer thefts—up 8.8% in the U.S. in the first year of the Great Recession. While Shteir explores kleptomania, shoplifting remains substantially an economically driven crime. To wit: in recent years, Japanese jails have added safety bars in cells and begun offering low-sodium meals to accommodate a surge of criminal senior citizens, shoplifting to cope with hard times.