We are often told that we should not focus on winning and losing. But the fact is that we feel bad about losing and good about winning. Our serotonin is triggered when we compare ourselves favorably to others, and it dips when we think we compare badly. Understanding your urge to measure up is essential to feel your best without the excesses of social rivarly.
At the 2006 Olympics, Andrea Bocelli sang:
“Like stars across the sky, we were born to shine.”
And to shine, you must win. And so you will win.”
He sang the second line in Italian: “e per avvincere, dovrai vincere, e allora vincerai.” (It makes more sense in Italian because it's sort of a pun.) I dare you to listen to it here without crying. (The words I’ve cited are at 1:20.) To get the full feeling you must know that Bocelli is blind and cannot see the Olympic Closing Ceremony over which he is shining.
Everyone can win. You can have the best Elvis memorabilia collection in your Elvis Memorabilia Club. You can grow the biggest Petunia in your Petunia Society. There are infinite ways to win.
Your brain is hungry for the feeling of superiority because that promoted survival in the state of nature. Lions had to protect their kill from other animals who'd steal it. Baboons didn't have sex if they were at the bottom of the status hierarchy. Our DNA does not come from creatures who put themselves last. Natural selection created a brain that rewards self-assertion with feel-good neurochemicals.
When you feel on top, serotonin is released in your brain. Serotonin feels calming because being on top brings security in the state of nature. We look for ways to feel on top because the serotonin feels good. That’s not nice, you may think, but there are so many healthy ways to feel on top. Putting yourself below others leaves you in a low-serotonin funk.
We’re all equal in the abstract, but the mammalian part of your brain does not process abstractions. It continually compares your strength to others to protect your hunt from being swiped and leaving you hungry. We’re equal with our cortex, but our mammal brain experiences the world as constant ups and downs, no matter where you are in life. Kings agonized about rivals and Pharaohs agonized about death. Presidents agonize about press coverage and superstars agonize about...everything. When you feel on top, the good feeling soon passes and your brain looks for ways to triumph again.
There are healthy and unhealthy ways to win. Unhealthy ways are a constant temptation. Gambling is the most obvious. People waste money on this losing proposition because it buys occasional momentary “proof” of being a winner. Other unhealthy ways to be on top include physical violence, theft, and meanness to people who are weaker than you.
Seeking out healthy ways to win is essential. You may think you’re above petty competition, but you may end up bitter and resentful when you perceive others winning. Status is a mammalian appetite like food and sex. If you starve yourself for status you are likely to be tempted by junk status the way a person starved for food ends up tempted by junk food. So fill up on nutritious status the way you'd fill up on nutritious food.
Healthy ways to win are abundant. I stumbled on one by accident while getting dressed one morning. I discovered that my necklace was very tangled, and put it in my pocket to work on it while sitting on the bus. I sat there hunched over for a long time while the bus bumped and bounced. When I finally I did it, a thrill surged through my whole body. Finally I looked up and noticed that a crowd of people had been watching me. (I was on a sideways seat) and they looked as thrilled as I was. The thrill was neurochemically real to them, even though it was my necklace. Every brain has the urge to conquer something, even if it’s just a necklace, and our mirror neurons drink it in when we see others triumph.
This story had a miraculous sequel a few years later. I was researching my book, I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness, and pondering healthy ways to make peace with this dominance-seeking brain we’ve inherited. A free pdf of the chapter You May Already Be a Winner is included on my resource page (bottom right corner).
The French word “debrouiller” popped in my mind. It means “to work one’s way out of a mess.” It evokes the thrill of winning without beating someone. I thought it was perfect, but first I wanted to know the Latin root. To my amazement, the word means “to untangle knots.”
Untangling knots is less thrilling than winning the Olympics, to be sure. But if I really had won the Olympics, the neurochemical high would soon pass. We’re inclined to feel devastated by the neurochemical dip that comes after accomplishments. Instead, we can untangle something new.
I have not mentioned the most familiar healthy strategy for winning - getting an education and changing the world. I am uncomfortable about the misuses I see of this strategy. I see people who are not really interested in learning and gaming the education system just to get a degree by. I see people trying to change the world by presuming that everyone else is doing things wrong. Such people might be better off starting an Elvis memorabilia collection.
You may think you’re too nice a person to care about winning. But if you find yourself hating those you perceive to be winning, go out and look at the stars and pick yours. You too will shine.
1. The French sometimes use the word “debrouillard” for a person we’d call “an operator” - someone who comes out on top by greasing palms or otherwise skirting the law. Obviously, I’m evoking the other meaning - someone who gets a flat tire while driving four kids to soccer practice and ends up having a fun time.
2. Bocelli’s song included a religious message. I am not a believer myself, and find that the shining part of the message speaks to believers and non-believers. I repeat my challenge: if you can listen to that clip without a thrill of inspiration, write to me and I will send you my personal translation of the rest of the lyrics. (Credit for the lyrics is shared by David Foster and his daughter.)