America has an obsession with defining success and happiness by winners and losers. This attitude and behavior permeates everything from sports to politics and business, and does more harm than good.

The summer Olympics in Brazil are underway, marked by intense competitions culminating in serious  medal ceremonies.  The gold medal winner’s achievement is heralded by the winner’s national anthem, and athletes, fans and media commentators downplay or even ignore the accomplishments of the sliver and bronze medal recipients. The gold medal has become symbolic of an obsession with winning, and everything else is losing. And this belief is strong in America.

For decades, psychologists have noted an irony in elite athletic competition: If you set aside the happy people who win gold and look only at the people who come in second and third, it's the men and women with bronze medals who invariably look happier than the athletes who won silver. In a paper they published after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, researchers Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich evaluated photographs of athletes on the victory podium and also studied post-competition audio interviews. They found bronze medal-winners tended to be happier than silver medalists.

“One’s happiness affects the way one perceives and appreciates ‘achievements’ or ‘successes’,” write psychologists Jongan Choi and Incheol Choi of Seoul National University. “Our study shows that happy spectators are less likely to devalue silver and bronze medals in relation to gold medals.” In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers describe three experiments. The first featured 106 undergraduates at a South Korean university, who began by completing the Subjective Happiness Scale — a series of four questions designed to measure the extent to which you consider yourself a happy person. They were then asked which is the better method for determining which nations are more successful at the Olympic Games: the total number of medals they receive, or the total number of gold medals? Participants who reported higher levels of happiness were more likely to prefer the total number of medals.

“Happy people savor little things that occur frequently,” the researchers write, “whereas unhappy people strive for intense experiences that rarely occur.” Their study provides evidence that this difference in attitude “emerges even with respect to perceptions of Olympic medal values.”

So, by all means, root for the winners over the next two weeks. But it bodes well for your future happiness if you can appreciate the accomplishments of the runners-up.

Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong represents what we have done to sports. We have elevated it from the purpose it was created to serve – fun, pleasure, enjoyment, leisure--and have made it into a monster that dwarfs its powerful head into economics, medicine, politics, education, and everywhere in between. We have turned our attention away from developing excellence in our athletes, and now only focus on immediate success. As a result, we do the following:

  • Play too many games and do not practice enough.
  • Select “talent” for short term gains instead of identifying and developing all athletes and focusing on long term potential.
  • Make cuts and select all-star teams at younger and younger ages, making youth sports an elitist undertaking for early developers and those with the financial means to participate.
  • Require year round participation to be a part of elementary school age youth teams, which goes against the advice of physicians, psychologists and sociologists.
  • Teach and coach strategies that provide short-term results at the expense of long-term development.

A study entitled True Sport reports sportsmanship in amateur sport has deteriorated over time and that far too adults believe that sport places too much emphasis on winning and overlooks rewarding effort and participation.

Sports Illustrated reported the results of a survey that asked Olympic hopefuls this question: Would you take a wonder drug that guaranteed an Olympic gold medal but killed you within the week? Over 50 percent of the respondents said yes. Winning has become so overvalued in our society that some athletes and coaches will do anything to capture victory.

It isn't just elite sports competition that inculcates this winning-at-all-costs attitude. Just visit any golf course, tennis club or other recreational sport and you will see people cheating to win. Check out any amateur soccer, hockey, baseball or football game, and you’ll hear parents screaming at kids, in an effort to help win the game and not lose it.  All too often, sports competitions become traumatic and stressful for children and a superficial measure of success for their parents. All too often we hear the phrase, “Americans love a winner.”

The media doesn’t help. Announcers and commentators’ commentary are replete with a focus on winning and winners, often denigrating the less successful. Runners up and second place are often described in disparaging terms.

We think we will always remember the great achievers, the gold medal winners for all time. Yet a survey of people asked to recall the gold medalists for the 400 meter race at the Olympics since 1991 will give you few correct answers.

Unlike Carl Lewis and Daley Thompson, Derek Redmond is not a name that conjures up memories of Olympic gold medals. But it is Redmond who defines the essence of the human spirit. Redmond arrived at the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona determined to win a medal in the 400. The color of the medal was meaningless; he just wanted to win one. Just one. Down the backstretch, only 175 meters away from finishing, Redmond is a shoo-in to make the finals. Suddenly, he heard a pop in his right hamstring. He pulls up lame, as if he had been shot. As the medical crew arrives, Redmond tells them, "I'm going to finish my race." Then in a moment that will live forever in the minds of millions of people since then, Redmond lifted himself up, and started hobbling down the track. His father raced out of the stands, and helped his son cross the finish line to the applause of 65,000 people. Redmond did not win a medal, but he won the hearts of people that day and thereafter. To this day, people, when asked about the race, mention Redmond, and can't name the medal winners.

Winning is an outcome. However, when people become obsessed with outcomes, they can lose sight of the journey, lose sight of who they are and how they got there, lose appreciation for the value of people who don't win.

America is obsessed with winning at everything. Often at any cost. It translates from the war rooms to the athletic fields to the top of the corporate ladder. Business language is infused with the vocabulary of the locker room and battlefield. They battle to win in a competitive market and dominate the opposition with an aggressive plan, sometimes "destroying their opponents."

Tony Schwartz, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, cites the examples of athletes who have lost their competition by the smallest of margins. Schwartz asks the question of whether they were "unworthy of our admiration? Are the winners of these competitions different from them in any meaningful way?" Certainly is the difference worth the divide in the adulation that follows? Schwartz questions the limitations of a "winner take all mentality," not just in the Olympics, but in our society in general. He suggests developing a healthier perspective on winning, including encouraging people to do their best, regardless of whether they win anything; of focusing on continuous improvement rather than just the final outcome; and taking a more positive attitude toward failure (losing) as a great lesson maker.

What can be done to change our society's win-lose mentality? Take a very different perspective from a coach who won many competitions. John Wooden was the famous UCLA basketball coach who won 10 NCAA championships to make him the most successful college basketball coach in history. Yet, in all his years of coaching Wooden rarely, if every, mentioned winning to his teams. He believed losing was as important as winning. He advocated constant improvement and pride in performance, not the score.  

Our obsessive focus on winning in our culture to some degree reflects our belief that competition is good and the best way to gauge the value of our individual and collective enterprise, particularly in relation to business.

According to the World Values Survey, Americans’ approval of competition is unmatched by any other industrialized country on earth. Americans also believe more strongly in the fairness of unequal outcomes, rewarding those who try and succeed and leaving those who fall behind to their own devices.

Recent research has shown a clear relationship between levels of happiness and competition. According to a comparative study of 42 nations around the world by Evert Van de Vliert and Onne Janseen, published in the Journal of Comparative Social Science, happiness decreases as the level of competition increases in a given society.

In his book, Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, author Francesco Duina argues that winning in and of itself doesn't bring satisfaction. If that were true, we would structure situations where we would unfairly compete against the opponents to assure victory. It is the thrill of close competition that attracts our interest. Losing too is more meaningful when the competition is close. The effort-reward mentality is central to the American culture's belief in competition and winning, says Duina.

Another component of America's obsession with competition and winning is the need for differentiation--the social need to categorize people as winners or losers. This reflects Americans' belief in the concept of equal opportunities as opposed to a social commitment to equal benefits for the good of all.

Duina argues that winning is also about being right. Victors are given the credence and respect to voice their views on the right way to reach their outcomes. In contrast, losers agonize and ruminate about their mistakes. In extreme forms, losers even question their identity and character. Interestingly, spectators who identify with the winners and losers, can feel even more righteous, and this sometimes is taken to extremes.

Duina says we have tendency to use the outcomes of competitive events to generalize about the competitors--their behavior, beliefs and knowledge--and apply it to all aspects of life. So movie stars, politicians, professional athletes, famous business leaders and celebrities suddenly become viewed as winners in all aspects of life. This belief runs counter to most research that shows that being successful or unsuccessful in one area of life does not transfer necessarily to other areas.

Having a winning mindset has its obvious advantages. It generates intensity, determination and effort, and often success can fill our lives with meaning. But a competitive mindset has serious problems. The first is pitting America against the rest of the world, and Americans aggressively promoting the notion that they are "the best." This generates constant tension and stress in life. The second is winning never produces permanent satisfaction, because once the victory is attained, the next one is quickly sought after. A competitive mindset and focus on winning can also introduce a continuous state of dissatisfaction with one's life, Duina argues.

Alfie Cohen, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, argues cooperation and collaboration, which do not focus on winners and losers, have been a more fundamental reflection of human activity throughout time in cultures throughout the world.

Cohen cites the research of Spencer Kagan and Millard Madsen which shows that children's achievement levels are superior when they cooperate versus compete. He also cites the research of  David and Roger Johnson of the University of Minnesota which showed 122 separate studies reporting cooperation promoting higher achievement than competition, and the research of Robert Helmreich of the University of Texas which showed that scientists, businessmen, academics, pilots and people in other professions who were considered experts, reported that personal challenge meant more to them than achievement through competition.

The argument is often made that intense competition builds character. Learning how to win and lose is supposed to toughen us and give us confidence. Yet, as anthropologist Jules Henry has said, "a competitive culture endures by tearing people down."

Consider the logic of it. Trying to outperform others and "win," is damaging, because like gambling in Vegas, the odds are against you. You will lose most of the time, because you can't win all the time. So every competition sets up the potential for humiliation, embarrassment, and demotivation, if the aim is winning.

The other problem with the focus on winning, is that once you've tasted it, you need more. It's like an addiction. The pleasure effect of winning does not last, unlike the satisfaction of having done the best you can. Finally, a focus on winning makes people focus outside themselves for validation of their worth. What is their value if they don't get the medals, media attention and wealth that goes with winning? In contrast, the satisfaction of success and doing the best you can through cooperation has been shown to be linked with emotional maturity and strong personal identity.

Cohen argues that the most disturbing feature of competition to win is how it negatively affects our relationships. Competition in schools, sports, the workplace in families and among countries can be the thing that divides, disrupts and turns to negativity. While we like to preach that competition brings people closer together it is rarely the winning that does that, it is more often the personal journey, the shared experience and compassion for failure that is stronger.

The focus on competition and winning is now a fundamental part of how business is done. Apple or Samsung must try to destroy each other either in court or by sales to be viewed as the winner. Countries are heralded as being the "best." Amateur and professional athletes and teams are glorified when they win and vilified when they lose.

Why, as a nation, is America so obsessed with competition, so indifferent to cooperation? It is much the same with entertainment. Our most successful shows, themselves in a competition for survival with one another, pit ­on-­camera competitors against one another in contests only one can win. The eponymous show Survivor is the Darwinian prototype, but the principle rules on all the “reality” shows. On American Idol, singing is the excuse but winning the real aim. In the winners’ world of television, nothing is what it seems. Top Chef is not about excellence or variety in cooking, but about winning and losing.

Yet ironically, the world now more than ever requires cooperation, not competition to address our most pressing problems--economic woes, global warming, poverty, famine, crime and many others. And the new unheralded economic movement--collaborative consumption--may just be the tip of the iceberg of where we need to go.

Perhaps the final indictment of an obsession with competition and winning, is that it restrains people from engaging in a personal journey of self knowledge and finding one's place in life as an entirely internal and personal process, not one that requires the comparisons and constant competition with others as a measure of self-worth.

A belief in, and practice of dividing people and countries into winners and losers does much to create prejudice, conflict and alienation. Isn’t it time that we took a long hard look at the damage it does?

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