A Mental Game: On Happiness, or Does it Matter Who Wins?


Why do we care?  Why will hundreds of millions of fans watch the World Cup this summer and hinge their lives around game results?  Why does it matter whether the millionaire players, coaches, and owners of Inter Milan beat the millionaire players, coaches, and owners of Bayern Munich in the Champions League final?  Why does anybody, no matter how few, bother going to watch FC Dallas play?

Presumably at some level most soccer fans invest ourselves in what, after all, is twenty-two men or women in short pants chasing a ball because we enjoy it.  Somehow the game makes us happy.  But why?

As it happens, studying happiness is hot right now in the social sciences.  Psychologists have realized they spent way too long focused primarily on pathology and dysfunction, failing to learn about the other side of human experience.  Economists have realized that people are as motivated by irrational emotions as they are by rational cost-benefit analyses.  And soccer, it seems to me, can be a pretty interesting place to apply some of their ideas.

The explosion of scholarly interest in happiness does not, unfortunately, make for easy answers.  Happiness is tough to define and measure.  Most research tends to operate with the assumption that it’s best to just trust people and simply ask: On a scale of __ to __, how happy are you?  The problem is that when the question is that blunt and superficial, most people say they are happy.  It misses the proverbial ‘masses who lead lives of quiet desperation.’  It misses those FC Dallas fans.

The alternative is to try and measure the things scholars think associate with happiness.  Though those things include a wide range of characteristics from autonomy to environmental mastery, in my read of the literature they boil down to that old Freudian formulation: what matters is a combination of ‘love and work’, people and purpose.  We tend to be happiest when we balance engaging social relationships with a sense that what we do matters, be that a job, raising a family, contributing to a community, or maybe even supporting a team.

How do you know who is happy? (photo by bdebaca from flickr.com)

But focusing just on people and purpose also fails to tell the whole story because it doesn’t address the classic social science problem of causality—do good social networks and success in one’s endeavors cause happiness, or are happy people more likely to have good social networks and succeed?  In fact, it turns out that statistically, when dealing with large data sets, the single best predictor of happiness is something we don’t have much control over: personality.  Optimists with a sunny disposition are happier than pessimists ridden by anxiety almost regardless of the circumstances of their lives.  A sanguine Aussie will consistently out-happy a dour Englishman no matter their relative fortunes in South Africa this summer.

While this may not be revolutionary stuff, the science of happiness does highlight some ways that our fandom can lead us astray.  One recent PR company survey, for example, found that 93 percent of England fans would “give up food for a week to see England win.”  This makes news because it seems to say something about how much the game matters to people—because it seems to say how happy it would make them to see their team win.  But they are wrong.

Predicting Happiness

Say hypothetically I want to predict how happy English football fans will be one year from today.  And say I have to make that predication for two potential scenarios: 1) England wins the 2010 World Cup; 2) England is knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina in a game where Carlos Tevez scores with a balled fist, Wayne Rooney gets dismissed on a second yellow for diving in the box, and Diego Maradona celebrates by belly sliding across Frank Lampard’s bow wearing a t-shirt saying ‘the Queen can stuff it.’  Here’s my prediction: in either case, English fans will be exactly as happy as they are today.

My prediction is based on a famous study in the science of happiness that evaluated the ‘real life’ equivalents of that English soccer dream/nightmare: in 1978 a group of psychologists compared two groups at the extremes of what we imagine to define our well-being—people had won the lottery, and people who had been paralyzed for life.  Immediately after their respective fateful events, there reported dramatic differences in their emotions—the lottery winners were ecstatic, the paraplegics were devastated.  Of course.

But over time a funny thing happened: they adapted.  The lottery winners started to realize that they still couldn’t afford everything they wanted, that they couldn’t trust people who had been good friends, that money changes but does not eliminate the stresses of everyday life.  Those who had been paralyzed came to realize that they could still engage in fulfilling relationships, that it could be rewarding to make little bits of progress in dealing with new challenges, that their physical limitations changed but did not eliminate the meaning of their lives.  After six months or a year, each group (along with a control group who had experienced no dramatic life events) expected to be back to the exact same level of happiness they’d reported before fate intervened. Extending the results of that study to virtually any life events, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (of Stumbling on Happiness fame) goes so far as to say “If it happened over three months ago, with a few exceptions, it has no impact on our happiness.”*[see end note]

Granted, objective events and circumstances do make a difference in the short-term; the night of England’s World Cup win/loss will undoubtedly be an alcohol-lubricated orgy of joy/woe.  And great games do offer aesthetic pleasures, along with the types of emotional highs (and lows) that constitute the immeasurable part of human experience.  But even in the short term an interesting range of variables mediate between events, between the win or the loss, and our emotional response.

The Social Relativity of Happiness

One key mediator between events and happiness is our relative perspective on what could have been—what academics call “counterfactuals.”  While competitive sports are alluring precisely because they delineate clear winners and losers, feelings of ‘success’ are relative to our expectations and our imaginations.

A famous research example here drew on the Barcelona Olympics to compare the emotional responses of silver and bronze medal winners.  As Victoria Husted Medvec and colleagues reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, objective raters consistently found bronze medal winners to be happier than silver medal winners.  In a follow-up study with amateur athletes they confirmed that this inversion of objective results was because people were thinking about what could have been: the bronze medal winners were comparing themselves to those who came in fourth, while the silver medal winners were comparing themselves to those who won it all.

Photo from Reuters

In soccer terms, this suggests that fans’ happiness at the World Cup depends less on where they finish and more on where people think their team could have finished.  Subjective perceptions of what could have been matter more than objective results.  In fact, I’d hypothesize that on average English fans would be happier with a second round exit than a loss in the final—because they wouldn’t have to torment themselves with how close they came to winning it all.

This subjectivity of fans’ emotional reactions is further compounded by that other key variable in our happiness equation: people.  Both in the short term and in the long term we tend to be happier when we are engaged in healthy relating with others.  One relevant study here was done by María-Angeles Ruiz-Belda and colleagues in Spain, who video-taped soccer fans watching televised games from the World Cup and from La Liga.  The best predictor of whether or not the fans seemed happy during the game had nothing to do with goals being scored or favorable results; what mattered was the presence of other people.  Although Ruiz-Belda and colleagues use these findings to question the relationship between smiling and emotional experience, from a soccer perspective the results suggest that the full glory of the game only happens when shared.

The social essence of happy fandom also shows up in theoretical efforts to explain our irrational attachments to our teams.  Why do we identify with players we don’t know and franchises that use us for our money?  Probably the most common theoretical explanation is called the BIRG effect: Basking In Reflected Glory.  The idea is that we unconsciously use teams to orient our social identities in a way that tells us something about whether we are good or bad: when the US was up 2-0 at the half against Brazil in last summer’s Confederations Cup I was irrationally happy because of a vague sense that the score line reflected well on me.  When the US proceeded to lose 3-2 I was irrationally miserable because of a vague sense that I myself, sitting dazed in front of a pub TV 10,000 miles from the actual game, had failed.  But while BIRGing makes some sense I’ve never accepted it to be the full story—there are too many people willing to stick with their teams through too many lean years  (think again about the English and the World Cup) to make BIRGing the only thing that matters.

So I was pleased recently to stumble across some scholarship from a psychologist named Daniel Wann who has offered Team Identification-Social Psychological Health Model as a complement to the BIRG effect.  Ok, the name is not as catchy, but the idea fits with everything else I know about happiness: Wann has good evidence that fandom facilitates happiness because it offers us the types of real, imagined, temporary, and enduring connections to others that our human nature craves.

Ultimately, as many others have noted, where else other than the sports arena can grown men cry, hug, sing, and dance in a way that enhances both their masculinity and their social networks?  Where else can people of all stripes engage in loud, desperate, eccentric yet culturally endorsed expressions of our full emotional range?  We often think soccer makes us happy when our team wins, but the evidence suggests it actually makes us happy by offering rare opportunities—real or perceived—to connect amidst the penetrating anomie of modern life.  So, if the science of happiness is right, the England fan screaming ‘God Save the Queen’ with arms around mates after a second round loss may actually end up happier than the fan sitting alone on a tropical island watching Rio Ferdinand raise the Jules Rimet trophy. Or at least, if that isn’t any consolation, know that a year later winning or losing probably won’t make one bit of difference.  Right?

*Note: Oddly, one of the exceptions to Gilbert’s claim may be soccer related: in their recent book Soccernomics Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski present some provocative data suggesting that hosting a World Cup does increase happiness in a country even several years after the event—though they also find that hosting other major games does not influence national happiness.  They present further data suggesting that the idea of losing in major competitions as a cause of fan suicide is a myth—in fact, they argue, sports events tend to bring people together in a way that prevents suicide.  So while the whole picture is certainly a bit more complicated than I’m making out, the basic argument holds—major events by themselves don’t matter as much as we expect them to over the long term.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa—though his other efforts to write about ‘A Mental Game’ can be found here and here.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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