Why Sports Make You Miserable, According to Science

Why Sports Make You Miserable, According to Science
Photo: Clive Brunskill, Getty Images

On Monday, a seismic shakeup hit the world of European football, threatening to alter the DNA of the biggest sport on Earth. The formation of an invitation-only European Super League, in which 12 of the continent’s economic powerhouse clubs will compete, sharing lavish sums of cash shared between them, has the sport’s 4 billion global diehards fuming.

Though it’s a watershed moment in the nearly 150 year history of the sport’s continental dominance, the heated emotions aroused by the Super League’s formation should be familiar to sports fans of all stripes, from long-suffering Marlins season ticket holders to those willing to defend the Arizona Coyotes hockey team year after year: Sports make us miserable.

Professional sports leagues provide a venue for broad cross-sections of the public to coalesce around a common identity, which isn’t inherently bad. It’s just that these days, the prevailing sentiment of so many sports teams and their undying fans is one of overwhelming collective anguish.

So why do millions of sports fans subject themselves to the torment of supporting teams that perpetually fail? And are there any ways to detach from the cycle of crushing disappointment while still observing our cherished loyalties?

The science is clear: Sports do make us miserable

In a 2018 study, researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Sussex probed the links between misery and English football, finding that bad feelings following a team’s loss were always felt with more intensity than the joy generated by a victory. Their methodology involved asking 32,000 respondents about their emotional states during various stages of the day, citing location data to determine whether or not respondents had been to or near a football stadium during a match.

As detailed in the Washington Post, researchers soon learned that losing had a far more pervasive impact on fans than winning:

In the hour immediately after their team wins, researchers found a typical fan might feel about 3.9 points happier than usual – about the same boost as from listening to music. That’s more than offset by the 7.8 points of extra sadness that fans will feel in the hour after their team loses, an event that makes respondents feel about twice as sad as they would be after working, studying or waiting in line.

This study signals grim tidings for sports fans everywhere, given that it’s far more likely your team will lose often than that it will become the next iteration of the Showtime Lakers. There’s a reason ESPN has what it calls a Sports Misery Index formula: there’s only ever one champion in a given season, and more often than not, it’s a team that has won it before, often recently. The probability of your favoured team reaching the pinnacle is typically defined by myriad factors outside of the game itself: The size of a team’s hometown market, the kind of endorsements and sponsors it attracts, and the salaries it can use to lure the best players: All are more likely to influence a team’s success than ethereal factors like team spirit or chemistry, and if simply having devoted fans made a difference, the Chicago Cubs wouldn’t have spent a century as underdogs.

There is a reason why Lebron James winning the NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers was an anomaly: A small market team with no prior titles triumphed over an ascendant and well-heeled opponent in the Golden State Warriors, and such upsets are rare, which makes them all the more sweet when (if) they occur. Whereas the opposite outcome — a small market team with no prior titles failing to win big — is the stuff most sports seasons are made of.

Human psychology means we expect to be miserable

You probably won’t hear much about Sigmund Freud in a Major League ballpark, but the sports psychologist Tom Ferraro draws a link between modern day fandom and the forefather of psychoanalysis. He tells Lifehacker that joy is a fleeting emotion in everyday life, so some sports fans are probably more at home while supporting miserable teams.

“It may be, as Freud would say, [that] life is indeed a grim affair filled with pain and suffering, so we are primed to connect to these sad, anxious miserable emotions,” he writes in an email. “Joy is far more rare an emotion so it tends to carry less weight.”

Fans also identify with teams they can associate with on the basis of class. Ferraro points to New York City baseball teams the Mets and the Yankees as primary examples of this dynamic:

In New York I have noticed that fans that love the Mets tend to embrace the middle and lower classes while those who love the Yankees may aspire to the upper class or identify with [it]. It is cognitively consonant to connect with a team you feel connected to status wise. This is Leon Festinger’s theory, though it has never been applied to sports.

In other words, people who aspire to be “winners” in a more superficial sense might flock to more successful franchises, because watching those teams hoist yet another trophy into the air gives them a feeling of personal triumph.

How to remove yourself from the cycle

One way to not let a failing sports franchise define your happiness is to simply tell yourself that its performance shouldn’t matter to your personal life. But that is easier said than done for scores of fans. Ferraro explains that this issue is often informed by something Freud called repetition compulsion, which is when a patient attempts to resolve a trauma by unconsciously returning to the source of the trauma again and again.

So basically, if a team keeps perpetually letting you down, you might continue to return to watch that team for years as a means of unconsciously resolving your negative emotions. Or, as Ferraro explains, “[t]he emotions of anger and frustration in the fan as they identify with the loser is their way of working through these emotions. Thus they remain faithful to the loser teams.”

The easiest way to break this cycle is to simply recognise that it exists. Sports don’t necessarily have to make you miserable, but if you realise that they are doing just that, you’ll have discovered your first, best chance at breaking their hold over your mood. Take a step back, remove yourself from the seasonal rollercoaster of misery, and begin to examine your relationship with your cherished team with clearer eyes.

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