By Dr. Rick Leskowitz
What is it about winning that feels so deliciously good? Why is New England in such a state of euphoria now? Usually this happiness comes from the pride of vanquishing an opponent, proving that you’re better than your adversary — a less primal version of “I’m alive, you’re dead,” played out at the level of ego.
But this week it was more than that. The St. Louis Cardinals were noble adversaries, the opposite of the “Evil Empire” Yankee types or Bambino’s Curses that used to foster our happiness. I think this year’s victory feels so good because it was all about teamwork and shared excellence, group energies rather than individual egos, transcendence rather than pride.
The 2013 Red Sox enabled their teammates, and their fans, to feel part of something bigger than themselves. Since that is one definition of a spiritual experience — putting aside the ego to become part of a greater whole — this baseball season was in a very real sense a spiritual experience for thousands. And the Higher Power at work this year took the form of group bonding and coherence:
The ingredients were all there: 25 quirky and lovable guys who bonded with each other from Day 1, full beards as the symbol of their mutual admiration and affection, and team chemistry as an express goal of their new general manager. Simply speaking, they loved one another, and we couldn’t help but notice how that helped them bond and perform. Manager John Farrell admitted that some recent roster moves (like adding Jonny Gomes to the lineup) were made purely because of his intangibles (his “energy” and “personality”), even though the statistics didn’t back him up. We saw that numbers don’t tell the whole story (Thanks, Theo) and intangible forces like love really do matter.
The fans came to love these players as their beards, and winning streaks, grew longer. The noise at Fenway was deafening during the playoffs, but it was an energy of appreciation rather than of gloating or mocking. And research shows how appreciation creates a coherent heart rhythm that enhances mind/body performance by putting you into The Zone of peak performance by focusing on their positive rather than negative emotions (ie, no more “Yankees suck!”).
Plus, these positive emotions are contagious, so appreciative fans can actually entrain their team to enter into the Zone of peak performance. Also, the crowd can become even more coherent through the magic of music — the “Sweet Caroline” sing-a-long has been shown to generate the highest fan coherence of any moment during a game. Indeed, “Good times never seemed so good, so good, so good.”
The hidden secret to this team’s success might have been April’s shocking Marathon bombing. By bonding over a tragedy and a common enemy, and by admiring the courage and resilience of the first responders and health care teams and survivors, New England found much to be proud of after the April tragedy. Sports helped to heal our regional PTSD, and the Sox clearly saw this as part of their civic duty during the many post-Marathon events they hosted and participated in.
The Red Sox became America’s team after the bombings, as cities and teams everywhere opened their hearts to us, most touchingly when the Yankees played “Sweet Caroline” at Yankee Stadium. Much like the New Orleans Saints when they won the Super Bowl after Hurricane Katrina, we had the distant prayers of millions on our side. And if the research on intercessory prayer is to be believed, then this was yet another intangible factor at work.
So what does it all mean? I think we’ve learned that winning is about more than just ego gratification. Sports, competition and winning feel so good because they can be a vehicle for higher awareness, for transcending the ego, and for learning about selflessness. As the Beatles said, “All you need is love” (as long as you have good pitching and clutch hitting).
Dr. Rick Leskowitz is a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Integrative Medicine Taks Force at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. He also produced the documentary film The Joy of Sox: Weird Science and The Power of Intention.