The proverbial rat race is all too real for many people in affluent societies. Dictionary.com defines rat race as “…especially a pressured urban working life spent trying to get ahead with little time left for leisure, contemplation, etc.”
The rat race is the relentless pursuit of a way of life none of us really choose. I can’t imagine that anyone would deliberately decide to live a rat race lifestyle. However, it is a way of life that is inherent in our socio-economic system and is expected for the simple reason that everyone does it – compliance is induced by the natural human need to fit in and be socially accepted. Our culture emotionally blackmails people to conform.
Evolution of the rat race
The rat-race is a modern phenomenon that continues to get worse. So-called ‘progress’ has no governor like that on a steam engine, it is constantly speeding up, filling up and super-sizing. It is the consequence of a system that pits people against each to get ahead.
In the past there was no such thing as the rat race. People were seen as people and not primarily as consumers. The pace of life before the industrial revolution was regulated by human scale and speed. Most people walked wherever they were going. People communicated face-to-face, or by sending a letter, if they could write. People had to work very hard but work had more meaning, people often stayed in their jobs for their whole lives and mastered skills which provided self-esteem and a sense of genuine purpose.
All of the incessant activity in our societies is creating more and more depression, anxiety, lifestyle disease and existential angst. Speed and busy-ness is counterproductive. It doesn’t get anybody anywhere, for any good reason. If you live in a rat-race you can’t be authentic and live your life true to yourself.
In the rat-race we lose touch with the things that are most important.
“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
– Lily Tomlin
Getting off the rat race
If people get off the rat-race, does their world fall apart? The answer is a resounding ‘No!’ This is evidenced by the countless people who have done it.*
The point is, the rat race is easily avoided and the benefits of avoiding it are profound. If people stepped back and looked at what they were doing from a distance they will realise that they aren’t being true to themselves.
The author and philosopher Colin Wilson talked about ‘Holiday Consciousness”. This is the sort of feeling you have when life seems bigger, fresher, more meaningful and more vital – like you feel when you are setting off on a holiday. Most people will know this feeling and they will also know that they don’t tend to get it in everyday life. The reason is that everyday life is so, well, everyday. Wilson believed that because much of everyday life is repetitive and trivial, automaticity (what Wilson called ‘The Robot’) does our living for us.
The Robot is the part of our cognition that takes over the repetitive actions in our lives. Things like driving, typing, knitting and riding a bike are handled well by the Robot. Once we have done these actions enough we can do them without consciously thinking about them. They become ‘second nature’, in other words, they are performed in an instinctual way. Unfortunately, the Robot tends to take over all repetitive activities, even ones we don’t want it too. The Robot will start listening to our favourite song for us, eating our favourite meal for us, and can sometimes even make love to our partner for us. The freshness and vitality of the new is overtaken by the pall of the familiar.
The point is that good routines, habits and activities are important at times but it is also good to be mindful and to savour our life experiences. Taking the time to ‘smell the roses’ improves our emotional well-being.
…if we don’t take charge of its direction, our life will be controlled by the outside to serve the purpose of some other agency. Biologically programmed instincts will use it to replicate the genetic material we carry; the culture will make sure that we use it to propagate its values and institutions; and other people will try to take as much of our energy as possible to further their own agenda.
– From ‘Finding Flow‘ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
What is the opposite of the rat race
The opposite of the rat race is not a perpetual holiday. Obviously, you can’t be on holiday every day, and if you were it is likely that the aforementioned Robot would take over the holiday and you would get more and more bored!
The opposite of the rat race is to live an essential life. Essential life has as little triviality and superfluousness as possible. It is autonomous and not automatic. It is living on purpose, with a purpose. It is a life full of personal meaning.
Living on purpose
People who choose to leave the rat race have a different plan for living. As Hunter S Thompson wrote to a friend: choose the life you want first and then work out a way to make a living in it. The point is that making a living contributes to well-being, but is still only part of making a life.
The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky
There is no need to fear any backlash from others for not conforming. If others care about you they will want the best for you, and if they don’t care about you, it doesn’t matter what they think.
The way to inner well-being involves the transcendence of the trivialities of our everyday lives. Being fully engaged in what we do, being creative, and practices like meditation, rituals, mindfulness, and exercise help develop inner well-being. For many people, simply being in nature offers a level of inner peace that is hard to achieve when they are caught up in their fast, busy, noisy, everyday lives.
Getting away from the rat-race is the best thing anyone can do to improve their lives. Perhaps the most potent way for anyone to live more authentically is by embracing simple living and being more self-sufficient.
Perhaps it could be the new normal where people aren’t driven by invisible, artificial and nefarious forces to produce and consume but are instead driven by the innate need to be true to themselves in harmony with others and with nature.
* (Of course there are people who don’t choose to get off the rat race; they simply fall through the cracks in the system for all sorts of reasons and end up in various states of destitution – marginalised and forgotten because they can’t conform.)