Stress, Challenge and the Rat Race

On Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm, Todd Buchholz joins us to discuss his new book, Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race. Buchholz argues that stress and competition are necessary and positive parts of life, and retirement damages you by taking you out of the running. We asked Stevan Hobfoll, head of the Behavioral Sciences Department at Rush University Medical Center, about competition, goals and what we need.

Hobfoll said that chasing goals is critical to one’s engagement in life, but they have to be achievable. And knowing your goals are achievable helps you improve your abilities across the spectrum.

“It makes you work for things, it makes you think, and it makes you learn,” he said.

Hobfoll said feeling engagement in what you are doing relies on three aspects: commitment, flow and vigor. Seeing value in your goal is a big part of being committed to it, he said. Flow comes from enjoying something to the point of losing track of time, and vigor refers to the energy that you get from pursuing the challenge.

Working with this sense of engagement represents the best of what you can feel—without competition or goals, Hobfoll said, one can feel helpless and lethargic.

Like after a summer vacation, working without a goal can allow the learning processes to atrophy, said Hobfoll.

“All the work would show that running to grab a ring constantly and never getting the reward are quite negative,” said Hobfoll.

Hobfoll says working within the “rat race”—without a goal in sight, other than more work—can lead to alienation and quick burnout.

Working without a goal doesn’t limit stress, however. Many people thrive on challenge, but almost no one thrives on stress, Hobfoll said.

“Stress is the experience of negatives: failure, impossible goals, negative feedback and boredom,” he said. “Challenge is the positive process, with goals that you have to work towards and work hard at.”

Different people require different things, and competitive spirit can differ person to person. Hobfoll said people who are low in competitive spirit can prefer “more stable, low challenge, workhorse kind of jobs,” or jobs more likely to fit into a “rat race” category.

Others with more competitive spirit require jobs with more risk, said Hobfoll.

“Society needs both jobs,” Hobfoll said.

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