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Forget calm this long weekend - stress is good for you

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Todd Buchholz likes to tell the story that he started out to write a book with the working title, Tail Hunters: How Americans Are Chasing Their Tails and Losing Their Souls.

He would have been following the social trend, not to mention the book publishing one, if he had. Calm is what we're all exhorted to be, and not just by our yoga teachers and massage therapists. My desk is littered with books aimed at helping people achieve a sense of well-being through meditation, simplifying their lives, and finding satisfaction in what they have rather than what they think they should want.

It's the social argument of our time: We must slow down, ease our anxiety and shave the edges off the need to be better than the next guy.

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So it stands to reason that this coming holiday weekend is what you need. A hammock. A G & T with ice. A summer read. A no-thought zone. Right?

"I made a mistake," says Mr. Buchholz, an economist and best-selling author, in an interview. "I was going to use my observations of people and how they chase their tails to be the wealthiest, the best-looking, skinniest, whatever it may be, to get their kids into the best schools, and that this was driving us mad.

"But then I realized I had it totally wrong. We feel better chasing the tails, even if we never catch them. The hunt makes us happier."

The new title : Rush: Why You Love and Need the Rat Race.

Stress is good, he argues. Consider toddlers to whom the walking world is chaos. "Taking a step is a game of chance, and the odds are incalculable," he writes. "Yet every child is willing to take the risk, to play the odds no matter how steep. We are, simply put, programmed to take risks, to create something better out of chaos."

Think that girl you like is out of your league? You will feel happier asking her out and risking rejection than remaining silent. Same goes for writing that hard entrance exam. Or asking your boss for a raise.

While he recognizes that too much stress all the time is not healthy, he argues that we are better off with some of it in our lives. He cites obvious medical examples: "De-stressing" for hours in front of a TV may sound great, but numerous studies show that too many hours of inactivity lead to cardiovascular disease.

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Drawing on research, social observation and his own experience, the book presents witty and insightful anecdotes to argue that the blissed-out relaxation imperative so many happiness experts extol is wrong.

Mr. Buchholz is determined to pull the yoga mat out from under your perfect alignment.

In a chapter called "We Are All Control Freaks - and Need to Be," he writes about people who are rich enough to not work, but do, to explain that employment gives people a sense of mastery. "The mistake of so many happiness gurus is this: They do not value the pleasure of power."

He cites research that shows self-employed people are 29-per-cent more likely to work over 44 hours a week. Neuroscience is brought into the mix when he says that our big frontal cortexes urge us to move forward, to control our environment and survival. "By nature, we are not potted plants (though government policies can turn us into a vegetative state)," he writes.

At this point, you may be thinking what I was when I caught up with the author on his cell phone while he was at Gatwick airport en route with his wife and three daughters to Florence - yes, for a holiday.

"I'm not a workaholic, manic type-A person," he insisted when I asked if he was capable of relaxation. (It seemed like a highly appropriate question.)

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Okay, if you say so, I thought. But he is an economist who believes wholeheartedly in the merits of a free-wheeling competitive society. And he is clearly writing from the experience of his own life and career as a highly-charged high-achiever.

A former director of economic policy at the White House, he was also managing director of the $15-billion Tiger hedge fund, an award-winning teacher at Harvard, a fellow at Cambridge University - oh, and he is a best-selling author of several books, a consultant, popular speaker, frequent media commentator and the co-producer of the Tony-award-winning musical, Jersey Boys. Anything else? "There's a play I've written I'd like to get produced. It's about World War Two and baseball."

Wouldn't he say that he has caught the many tails he has chased? "I can't complain. I've been successful," he says. "But in my career, I would say that whatever honours and trophies I have received have not been my biggest moments." And what would they be then? "I'm still waiting for them," he says.

Still, even if he seems to be the kind of person who makes you feel an urgent need for a vacation, if not a stiff Scotch, he does present compelling arguments about the beauty of progress and the benefits of a competitive, restless society. In short, they create a more inclusive world.

"If you compare societies and civilizations that trade more, levels of violence go down and levels of trust go up," he tells me on the phone. "You create a more convivial place in which to live. It's just a fallacy to think that retreating to Walden Pond would make us better off."

So think about that when you're on your version of Henry David Thoreau's pond. That would make Mr. Buchholz happy. Even when he's on holiday, he's not interested in idleness. He believes in making himself, his readers and everyone else in his life think, because that's what our brains are designed for. "So if I'm taking a kid fishing, I think 'What kind of bait?" and 'Why this one and not that one?' Our brains should be activated."

Yeah, I felt the same thing. Exhausted, and in need of a hammock.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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