What Olympic Victory Can Teach You About Happiness

by Brian on August 18, 2012 in Winning

Very few things make me cry, and I cry very rarely. But watching champions rise to the occasion and show their greatness to the pleasure of the crowd brings a tear to my eye.

There were many awe inspiring stories to come out of the London 2012 Olympics. Michael Phelps solidifying himself as the most decorated Olympic champion that we will ever see in this lifetime, Usain Bolt showing the world once again that he is the undisputed fastest man on the planet, David Rudisha leading the race the whole way and destroying the 800m world record.

It was also a point of personal pride for me that Lolo Jones, who I used to see win high school races in Des Moines back in the day, was able to make it back to the games and finish a respectable 4th in the 100m hurdles despite age and injury.

However, this time around I was fortunate enough to watch BBC coverage of the Olympics and become aware of a great British champion–heptathlete Jessica Ennis.

While she’s almost entirely unknown in the US, in the UK Ennis was billed as the face of the London games for team GB. With weeks of media build up the pressure and expectations were high. Team GB certainly had many other medal contenders, but Jessica Ennis was the great British hope for the London Olympics.

After day one of the heptathlon she held a commanding lead having run personal bests in the 100m hurdles and 200m. Far from being done, her weaker events were still to come on the second day, which would ultimately determine her standing on the podium. She stepped up again and threw a personal best on the javelin and went into the final event, the 800m, with a large enough points lead that she could finish the race comfortably back in the pack and still win the heptathlon gold. However, had she done that, it would have been an unremarkable story.

With less than 100 meters to go in the 800m and a few runners more than a little ahead of her, she already had the heptathlon gold medal in the bag so she didn’t really need to put forth any more effort. But somewhere deep inside she found another gear. This was going to be her moment and she wanted it.

Jessica burst forward, overtaking one runner, then another, then she was clear in the lead with a wide margin between her and 2nd place. She crossed the finish line with arms outstretched in victory while the elated British crowd exploded into a deafening roar as the heightened emotions of national pride, hope fulfilled, and vicarious dreams realized on the largest stage possible reached a fever pitch.

The announcer went wild exclaiming what a great time it was to be British and that everyone would remember where they were on the day that Jessica Ennis won Olympic gold at home. Tears flowed around the stadium as she stood atop the podium and the British national anthem played.

Even just writing about it brings a tear to my eye.

Winning is important

Charlie Sheen wasn’t just batshit crazy. Despite well meaning adults telling you in your younger years that it’s “how you play the game” that really matters, winning is important.

You may have buried it under layers of “I can’t do it” or “it’s not realistic” or faded dreams or even pure shyness, but deep inside you there is a part of you that wants to walk into an arena with the crowd roaring your name and deliver unto them the victory that unites their hearts and minds with yours as they experience it through you.

It doesn’t have to be a sports victory or even any scenario as grandiose as the arena, but there is a part of you that wants to win and be respected by others as top class.

In his book about stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky points out that winning and a feeling of “dominance” releases more dopamine (a pleasure chemical in the brain). Not only that, but this feeling of status and dopamine response carries over into other parts of your life–even when you’re not currently in the act of winning.

The bright lights are brighter and the happy days are quite literally happier when you’re a winner.

How can an ordinary person win?

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “that’s great if you have some mega talent, but I’m just some average joe/jane with an average job and and average life.”

Or you might even be thinking, “but I’m not really a competitive type, beating others just doesn’t seem that important to me.”

Fortunately, winning is mostly in your head, so you don’t need to be a world class athlete to achieve a proper victory.

If you’ve been an overweight couch potato for a while, it might feel like a big “win” to you to enter a local 5K fun run and simply make it across the finish line. Even if you finish dead last, you might feel like more of a winner than the guy who expected to win the race and came in 3rd place.

If you’ve been dreaming the dream of self-employment and passive income, a $50k/year stream of passive revenue might make you feel like more of a winner than making $200k/year in wages as a mid-level investment banker.

In fact, winning is in other people’s heads too. The “big win” might mean nothing at all to someone else. I was watching the Olympic steeplechase with a buddy. As the winner took his victory lap my buddy took me completely by surprise when he said, “What a waste of time and resources. Devoting your life to something so useless when that energy could have been put into something so much better.”

The social component

Winning at solo goals like finishing your first 5K run or earning a certain amount of money brings an undoubted amount of pleasure, but when the win includes a social component there is a multiplier effect.

One of the things I noticed when I watched replays of the NBC Olympics streaming coverage was that there were no announcers and you really couldn’t hear the audience. Frankly, it was kind of boring. If there really were no audience and no one else cared about or was interested in the races, I’m sure that the winners would still be happy to win. But it would be kind of flat and not as exciting. What really makes it a thrill to win and sets the athletes on fire is the roar of the crowd and knowing that the whole world is watching.

Actors in Star Trek know that people watched the show and it sold well, but as William Shatner (Captain Kirk) commented in an interview, you don’t really know how much people loved the show until you step out onto the stage at a Star Trek convention and get hit with the wall of sound and love that comes at you from the audience.

You may never be recognized on such a large stage as the Olympics or TV, but you might get promoted to a coveted position, start a local small business that makes a difference in people’s lives, or star in a popular local play.

Even if you’re just a cog in the machine at work, you might have some side activity that gives you a feeling of status and winning like being the best surfer at your local beach or president of your Star Trek club.

On the personal side, if you’re in a relationship you might feel like a winner when you wake up every morning and see the person next to you knowing you had what it takes to attract and keep such a lover.

Find your way to win

You may never be world class at anything. In fact odds are overwhelmingly against it. In all truth, that’s something I can’t really accept, so I don’t expect you to either. I want to be world class at something despite the odds and current lack of field of likely success.

But that’s okay, don’t get hung up on it. You can still find ways to win.

Find wins that are meaningful to you. Find some slice of life where you can achieve a personal or professional victory significant to both you and others. Don’t get hung up on impressing others, just trust that if you find a way to win at something you care about then love from others who care about the same thing will come back to you and magnify the pleasure you derive from it tenfold.

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