Cheer Does a Body Good

Authentic cheers can bring neurochemical rewards.

Posted Dec 31, 2018

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Whether you're cheering a new year, a sports team, or a birthday, it feels good. Could there be lasting benefits?

Such benefits were reported by Nick Hornby in his book, Fever Pitch. He explains that his 7-year depression suddenly lifted after cheering the victory of his favorite team. This took him by surprise and he was even embarrassed by it. He can't believe his emotions could depend on something so banal, yet his gloom coincided precisely with Arsenal's 7-year losing streak.

Of course it's more complicated. Cheering an underdog in a stadium with thousands of people who share your emotions is hugely rewarding to your inner mammal. Uniting against a common enemy is a great oxytocin boost. Defeating that enemy is a jolt of serotonin. Reaching a long-sought goal is a dopamine surge. I am not even a sports fan, but I could feel the surge as he describes his emotions during the game. It's easy to see how the big burst of happy chemicals would jumpstart his mood.

Such a feat is hard to reproduce, alas. Events are uncontrollable and they have no impact unless you already care. In Hornby's case, bonding around sports met his early need for connection when other avenues failed. He got wired to link the welfare of his team to his own welfare. Each of us is wired by early experience, as random as it may be.  Understanding your early circuits can help you identify good opportunities to cheer. You can't control the outcome but you can position yourself to ride the waves.

Same outcome, different method 

A jumpstart can begin with a bad event instead of a good one. This is vividly shown in the movie Prisoner of Second Avenue. It portrays an advertising executive who falls apart after losing his long-term job. His devoted wife tries everything to help him but nothing works. What finally frees him is inappropriate rage, when our hero fights the person he thinks has pick-pocketed him. We see him chase the presumed thief (played by a very young Sylvester Stallone) through Central Park and finally land a tackle. He soon realizes his error, but then notices that he suddenly feels good. His fog has lifted, and stays lifted.

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Rage is of course a bad way to escape a slump. But a big exertion in pursuit of a big goal is an effective way to make your brain happy. Such exertion is hard to motivate, which is why a chance event is often what it takes.

So make time to run after something you care about. Create opportunities to cheer. Don't pressure yourself to cheer when others cheer. Don't expect fake cheers to feel good. Align with your individual reward circuits.

We often chase unhealthy rewards because we experienced such rewards in youth. We often have to update our circuits to target more sustainable rewards. It takes some trial and error, but you can find something healthy to cheer. (More on this in my book, The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry )