Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

What Makes Sports Fans Happiest: Fear and Despair

What Makes Sports Fans Happiest: Fear and Despair

Everyone knows that the US Soccer team is all but certain to go down in flames sometime between now and the finals of the FIFA World Cup on July 11. And for American fans, that could be wonderful thing, researchers say.

A recent study by a team at Ohio State University looked at 113 college football fans as they watched a game between their school's team and that of an arch rival. The subjects were asked to watch a particularly crucial game and then log their emotional state during commercial breaks. They also logged their perception of their teams' chance of victory. It turned out that fans who thought the game was the most enjoyable were those who were convinced at some point during the game that their team would lose - but then watched as the team turned around and managed to win. From the press release:

The results showed how important negative emotions were to enjoyment of the game. "When people think about entertainment in general, they think it has to be fun and pleasurable. But enjoyment doesn't always mean positive emotions," [said study co-author Prabu] David. "Sometimes enjoyment is derived by having the negative emotion, and then juxtaposing that with the positive emotion."

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... "You need the negative emotions of thinking your team might lose to get you in an excited, nervous state," [study co-author Silvia] Knobloch Westerwick said. "If your team wins, all that negative tension is suddenly converted to positive energy, which will put you in a euphoric state."

In a sense this study (which seems to me far from rigorous) offers up a pretty unsurprising conclusion: ask any screenwriter about how to craft a gripping plotline, and they'll tell you that the hero must find herself in the grip of a seemingly inextricable problem at the end of Act Two.

But this study's results also serve as a reminder of a larger, and very important point: that the pursuit of unalloyed pleasure is a doomed undertaking. We can't really derive any enjoyment from life unless we are willing to admit some hint of fear and the possibility of disappointment. Pure pleasure-seeking quickly becomes deeply unsatisfying, which can lead us to seek even more pleasure, and more dissatisfaction, in a spiraling vicious circle that leads to endlessly unsatisfying indulgence.

Daniel Ariely addresses this dilemma intriguingly in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality, in which he argues that we tend to approach pleasant and unpleasant things in exactly the wrong way. Naturally, we seek out pleasant sensations and try to experience them them again and again, but this frequency leads to habituation, so that we soon stop deriving much pleasure from what we're doing. Conversely, we avoid unpleasant things, experience them only rarely, and so become sensitized to them. If we were really smart -- and in control of our behavior -- we'd do unpleasant things over and over again to inure ourselves to them, and save pleasant things for a rare treat, so that we did indulge, our senses would be flooded with intense, highly memorable pleasure.

When I was a kid, I remember how excited my father was when a friend came back from a trip out West with a case of Coors. Back then, the beer wasn't available east of the Rockies, so having one was a rare treat. Not long after, Coor distribution went nationwide, and now -- well, it's just another beer. I'm sure Coors makes more money this way. But the fact that you can get it anywhere has killed the specialness.

To really get the most out of life, we should pay attention not just to what makes us happy, but how it makes us happy.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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