Ah, Sundays in fall: The days that strain relationships across America, with one partner glued to TV, laptop and smartphone screens and the other wondering where those multitasking skills were when it came to juggling…
Ah, Sundays in fall: The days that strain relationships across America, with one partner glued to TV, laptop and smartphone screens and the other wondering where those multitasking skills were when it came to juggling chores during the week.
Frustrating as it may be for couples with incompatible levels of NFL enthusiasm, there is science behind why many Americans can’t peel themselves away from events that have no direct bearing their lives (save for the resulting beer bellies). After all, the stance of psychology is that there’s purpose behind each of our actions. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we continue behaving in certain ways when those behaviors fulfill some basic human need — even if that behavior is watching a mind-numbing amount of football. Here’s why, for some people, watching football might not be selfish or lazy, but rather a biological necessity:
1. Watching football satisfies our need for pleasure and gratification.
University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of the positive psychology movement, cites pleasure and gratification as basic dimensions of happiness. It’s difficult to argue that football viewing doesn’t fulfill these dimensions for many people. The sport involves watching fantastically athletic people doing fantastically athletic things, which, for the athletic-minded fan, likely produces a hit of dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters. Even those who don’t appreciate each sideline grab or big-time tackle surely find gratification in cheering for a team that dominates a buddy’s or guilty pleasure in eyeing scantily clad cheerleaders. At the very least, there’s plenty of innate pleasure in watching TV on comfortable couches with one’s preferred food and drink while in the company of others who enjoy similar luxuries.
2. Cheering for a team satisfies our need for affiliation.
Psychologist David McClelland includes affiliation in his three needs theory developed in the mid-20th century. Essentially, the theory suggests that we all need to feel like we belong to some group. Whether it’s a book club, Zumba class, recreational volleyball team, violent gang, religiously fanatical group or Seahawks fan club, such formal or informal groups feel like extensions of ourselves, like intimate carvings of our identity. (Look no further than the average Twitter bio to see this at work: “Dedicated lawyer. Father. Husband. Colts fan.”) We feel most fulfilled and excited if the group with which we’re affiliated is successful. It’s no surprise that dominant teams who were once inadequate (think Golden State Warriors) sell more merchandise once the winning streak begins. It’s no fun rooting for a team whose success is unlikely and lots of fun watching when “we” might pull off the victory. Also worth noting: The closer you feel affiliated with a group, the more moral leniency you are willing to allow. In other words, we do an impressive job justifying the questionable behaviors of people in “our group” and are hugely defensive against critical outsiders.
3. Identifying with a successful team satisfies our need for a healthy sense of self.
The accomplishments of a team can feel a lot like our own personal accomplishments. There’s no denying this when you see grown men over the moon for days after their team’s big win or miserably depressed following a loss. Having a healthy self-esteem — one of the highest of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — also means bouncing back quickly from adverse events, something that successful football teams do quite well. Every team, no matter how competent, has the opportunity this week to bounce back from a loss, no matter how dreadful its performance the previous week. Things are rarely this measurable in real life. Identifying with a successful team also provides a convenient distraction away from our own personal troubles and self-defeating narratives. Many times it’s easier to fuse with our team when our own sense of self is deficient.
4. Football satisfies our need for purpose and meaning.
Globally, we all need to have a clear direction in life and to feel as though our life has meaning — this is the richest of Seligman’s dimensions of happiness. Studies find that those with more of a sense of purpose in life experience greater well-being and live longer. Starting a new assignment at work or beginning a new house project gives us direction and something new and exciting on which to focus our attention. And although we have little, if any, control over the fate of our football team, talking about it, listening to sports radio folks talk about it, buying the merchandise, researching the team’s players and watching the big game all make us feel connected with the team and, in some way, responsible for its success. For those five months of the year, watching and supporting our team becomes a top priority in our life. As game day draws near, anticipating it gives us fresh energy and a youthful giddiness that make our lives feel more meaningful.