Running a 5K through the thick of Florida’s sweltering summer heat was not my idea of fun. Despite the joy in running itself, I dreaded the idea of competing in a cross-country race with girls twice my size to try and win a medal that’d likely gather dust in a closet.
I was on the verge of tears as I struggled to get my feet more that a couple inches off the muddy ground until I saw my coach. Seeing him jump in enthusiasm on the sidelines ignited bursts of reserved energy that propelled me to race towards the finish line.
Our culture seems to carry a pervasive effect in that the pressure to exceed and compete prevails despite any obstacle. An individual member who is coached by greater society continuously attempts to strive, compete, and succeed.
But does competition truly “bring out the best” in people?
Sure, I was able to finish the race, but was I happy? Could I have felt just as satisfied running the 5K at my own pace without any outside drive?
Neoclassical economic theories postulate that being part of the game to win drives development and boosts technological progress. The afterthought is that wellbeing should improve along with the optimization of everything else in our lives.
Unfortunately, these theories are riddled with assumptions about our ability to logically understand what makes ourselves happy.
The reality is that the power to attain a level of individual happiness is much more unpredictable and irrational.
New emerging fields, like positive psychology, have sprung up in attempt to quantify the seemingly intangible feelings of joy. Only now are researchers beginning to understand the feeling’s relationship with competitive capitalism.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, spoke with BTR about the scientific understanding of happiness and its connection with monetary reward.
“Researchers define happiness in two components,” explains Lyubomirsky. “First, it’s frequent experience of emotions like joy, tranquility, curiosity, [and] pride, and another component is basically having a sense that you’re satisfied with your life.”
Using this definition, Lyubomirsky performs “happiness interventions” or experiments that test people’s happiness over time, similar to a clinical trial performed in a laboratory.
In working with subjects on the acquisition of money, she found a correlation with happiness, but not to the degree many would expect.
“Money is associated with happiness in both directions–happier people acquire more money and people with more money are happier, but it seems less about how much you have or make, and more about how you spend it.”
A strong value in our culture promotes self-reliance and overtly selfish attitudes in order to compete for more tangible wealth. The reward of monetary gain seems to complement a rush of pride associated with “winning” in the competition of life.
However, as researchers dig deeper into this relationship, they find that the rivalry ethos not only undermines our ability for cooperation, but also limits a deeper sense of that second component of happiness–an overall satisfaction with life.
Research focused on work environments reveals that the “givers,” or people who are helping others without seeking any type of reward, are more successful and likely happier than the “takers.”
Alfie Kohn, an author and widely known critic of competition in education, deplores our culture’s systemic structure to prep children to continuously out-perform others for results like better grades and higher test scores.
“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that competition is destructive, particularly, but not exclusively, for children,” Kohn told The New York Times. “It’s a toxic way to raise children.”
Further, when we take a step back and look at society as a whole, major global studies such as World Happiness Reports determine that the strongest factors for a nation’s wellbeing are the degrees of social support and generosity.
Yet the more pragmatic understanding of happiness and work-life balance questions if ridding a person’s competitive side for complete pleasure is an unnecessary self-indulgence.
Peter Warr, professor of work psychology, wrote the book The Joy of Work? in which he suggested that people can take on strategies that offer enjoyment in the competition of work instead of finding an escape from it all.
Warr encouraged employees to make the best of their work environments. He elaborated in his writing that, “people at work are happier if their jobs contain features that are generally desirable and if their own characteristics and mental processes encourage the presence of happiness.”
His point brings attention to how, though external competition may be toxic if over-consumed, our wiring for happiness is not completely dependent on it.
In fact, research by Lyubomirsky suggests we have about 50 percent of our ability to be happy hard-wired in our genes. Forty percent is left for us to make ourselves and the world around us happier.
So in the race of life that we all inevitably enlist in, competition is a facet of our practical reality. We can choose to escape it or we can choose to find cooperation within it, to perhaps, some day, somehow, achieve a saner world to live in.
Featured image courtesy of Pavels Sablins.