As a young child, Mike’s days were filled with fun and excitement. His mind overflowed with imagination and exploration. Then he turned five and started school. That’s when his life in the rat race began.
Mike’s well-meaning parents and teachers began his formal training as a rat racer by telling him that he needed to take school seriously. They informed him that the grades he got would determine how successful he’d be in the future. School was about working hard, he learned, not a place to play around and have fun. Mike wanted to please his parents and was anxious about doing well in school. His parents reinforced his fear by displaying their displeasure whenever he performed poorly.
About this same time his parents put him onto competitive sports teams. And guess what he learned? He needed to take these activities seriously because his team was counting on him to do well. Adults cheered his successes, but if he had a bad day they admonished him to practice more so he could perform better. If he was going to advance to the bigger leagues, coaches told him, he’d have to work harder.
Mike took his parents, teachers, and coaches advice to heart and really applied himself to becoming successful. It worked, and he found that the adults in his life complimented him while the other kids envied his achievements. But Mike had very little free time, and he found himself thinking fondly about the holidays when he’d get a break from final exams and playoff games.
By the time Mike went off to college he had fully internalized the rat racer formula for living a successful life: work hard now so that you can be happy in the future. He harbored the secret hope that college would be fun, but when he got there he found that it was a much more competitive environment than high school had been.
Mike’s hope for escaping the rat race was dashed when he realized that he’d have to work even harder if he was going to earn the grades that would get him into graduate school so he could become a doctor, lawyer, or CEO. So he told himself that that he’d be happy once he was into his career and was making lots of money. But when he got to that phase of life, he found himself working 60 – 80 hours a week. Mike dreamed of the day he could retire and finally be happy.
The problem with being in the rat race is that – win or lose – you’re still a rat. These words of wisdom from Lily Tomlin ring true to people who’ve been laboring under the illusion that if they sacrifice their present enjoyment of life, they will end up happy. In fact, an incredibly successful rat racer will find it impossible to enjoy what they’re doing in the present moment because they believe that they’re only allowed to be happy when they reach their destination.
The dilemma for a rat racer is that we all share the same destination – death. So what’s the hurry? Our society rewards results, and teaches us that happiness lies in achieving success. But when we accomplish a goal what we feel is relief from the pressure of pushing ourselves to attain our lofty ambitions.
Rat racers mistake happiness for that feeling of relief, but the absence of pressure is not pleasure. Even more distressing is the fact that the relief is so short-lived. The next mountain top is always looming on the horizon.
The key to happiness for a rat racer is to engage in activities that will provide as much pleasure in the present as they will in the future. It’s not that they necessarily need to work less or with less determination. They must learn to pay as much attention to creating a daily dose of inner satisfaction as they do to striving toward future success.
If you’re feeling like a rat racer, think back to a time when you were enjoying the journey as much as you were looking forward to achieving a goal. What would your life like look like if you were as focused on making yourself as happy in the present as you are in the future?
Being happy is not about struggling to make it to the top of the mountain, nor is it derived by aimlessly wandering around in the valley. Happiness is stopping to enjoy the view on the climb to the peak.