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Jeremy Tattersall

An impoverished way of living

Some young participants in Bhutan's experiment with Gross National Happiness Some young participants in Bhutan's experiment with Gross National Happiness

It’s intriguing to think that while business seeks to make profits by providing goods and services in a competitive environment, some eastern spiritual traditions would consider the advice to “Give all profit and gain to others, Take all loss and defeat upon yourself,” to be extremely profound and supremely important. These two approaches to life have both been part of societies for millennia, but there’s still plenty to discuss before a common understanding can be clearly defined in our current era.

 In this context, Leader’s Way—Business, Buddhism and Happiness in an interconnected Worldby the Dalai Lama and Laurens van den Muyzenberg is definitely worth looking at.

 

Methods such as meditation and yoga that promote self-awareness, contentment, ethical living and a spiritual view of existence, could just be about to make a greater impact on economic thinking. Inspired by Bhutanese experiments with Gross National Happiness, the United Nations and the French and British governments among others are looking at ways to evaluate the level of happiness people experience to help guide policy decisions. They have decided that the exclusively economic indicators of Gross Domestic Product are inadequate when it comes to addressing human needs. The response of the global head of research at Tullett Prebon brokers to the recent London riots is also worth taking note of:

"We conclude that the rioting reflects a deeply flawed economic and social ethos… recklessly borrowed consumption, the breakdown both of top-end accountability and of trust in institutions, and severe failings by governments over more than two decades.

"The dominant ethos of 'I buy, therefore I am' needs to be challenged by a shift of emphasis from material to non-material values.”

Imagine, decisions about economies and societies, not to mention foreign policy, being made as if people, their happiness and the land they live on actually mattered. Could it really happen?

This is a possibility that seems to have sparked at least one businessman and high profile conservative American business commentator into action. Todd Buchholz has just written a book called Rush: Why You Need to Love the Rat Race. He’s clearly no fool and runs a $15bn. hedge fund. That’s an awful lot of hedges, isn’t it? He also has clout in the media and the ear of the Republican party. Maybe he has political ambitions of his own.

Anyway, what does Todd have to say for himself? I guess the main point is that work is wonderful, and that peace and quiet will ruin your state of mind. How so? Because evolution has hardwired us to compete. “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.” Citing neuroscientific experiments, he says that competing and envisioning the future maintains our mental fitness. In contrast, inactivity in general and retirement from the rat race in particular reduces health and mental capability:

happiness comes from the rushing around.  We feel better chasing the tails, even if we never catch them.  The hunt makes us happier.  I began to write at a furious pace, feeling that I was knocking down false prophets who speak from pulpits, pits, classrooms, and yoga mats and make their followers feel guilty about trying to eke out some success in a chaotic world.

 

Fascinating. There’s enough here for pages of comment. So very briefly, yes, work can be good and is sometimes very rewarding. But Todd, if all you’ve ever done with your life is work incredibly hard and then you stop, peace and quiet probably would freak you out entirely, you poor lamb. If you learnt to meditate, a new world of mindfulness, awareness and self-awareness that can actually improve efficiency and productivity at work would open up to you. You would also start to understand the huge inner areas of yourself that you miss if you close yourself off from them by limiting your focus to work, competition and the rush of the hunt. You’d see the value of peace and holidays and become a more rounded, open and happier individual who is probably more pleasant to be around. You would start to see that it is possible to be content without always needing to be driven and perpetually goal-oriented. And there’s nothing wrong with broadening your horizons by pursuing fresh knowledge, is there?

Also, let’s not forget that while most would agree that a certain amount of stress is good for creativity and the honing of skills, that more than a certain amount of stress is destructive. This fact itself challenges the idea that we (meaning ‘everybody’) love stress. People who react more to stress have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, this risk is particularly linked to people who tend to be excessively competitive. 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress, which is linked to the six leading causes of death (heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide). Apart from the suffering it causes, it sounds to me like stress comes with a very high economic cost attached to it. Having employees who know how to stay relaxed and relatively free from stress while being efficient as a result of meditation has the potential to increase a company’s productivity and profitability. You see Todd, meditation isn’t about escaping reality, it’s about embracing reality in whatever form it comes in and being relaxed and present with it. It keeps the mind aware, alert and healthy too, so you could function really well without unhealthy addiction to rushing around.

Has evolution hardwired us to compete? Here’s some information that’s at least as credible as Todd’s to suggest this might not be the case. 'Neuroplasticity,' the continuous evolution of the brain in relation to our experience, is now a well-established principle in neuroscience. Intensive training, such as learning a musical instrument or quite possibly how to function in the cut and thrust of a financial institution, can bring about a profound change in the brain.

This suggests that urge to compete is almost certainly not entirely down to evolution. In fact, neuroscientists and specialists in epigenetics, the study of gene expression, are contesting studies asserting that 40 to 60 per cent of our character traits are determined by genetics. Genes are a bit like a blueprint that may or may not be put into action—there is nothing absolute about it. Even in adulthood, our environment can have a considerable influence on the expression of genes. So it’s very possible that getting a rush out of competition is at least partially the result of having previously created the ingrained, arguably unhealthy habit of competition.

If this is the case, then we are to a large extent the creators, not the victims of circumstances: we can change our circumstances and habits. We have a choice about what our motivation for doing business is. We could for example decide to operate within particular ethical boundaries in addition to the legal ones and happily settle for lower profits. If we want, we can train our minds in compassion and completely revolutionize the basis on which trade is done. Gratification would come from benefitting other people, which is different from selling them things they have been conditioned to desire but don’t really need. It would come from trading in a way that sustains the environment and resources too. Such gratification could replace the rush of competing and winning. Winning by definition implies that someone else has lost, and sometimes lost really badly. What’s the point of pursuing a rush that either directly or indirectly harms others? We could even decide to evolve in a way that would eventually mean that no one would be obliged to love the rat race, because the economy would no longer require one.

 

Todd says a lot more, but this is enough for one blog.