Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Competitiveness and happiness
Why being overly competitive can make you unhappy
Does over-competitiveness cause unhappiness? This is the central question addressed by this chapter and touches upon many facets of psychological research, including not only competitiveness and happiness but also personality, anxiety and goal achievement.
Happiness has not always formed an essential area of psychological research, despite the fact that it forms an integral part of the individual, and it holds a special fascination for society as an ephemeral yet aspirational state. From the beginning stages of the humanist psychological approach, as highlighted by scientists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, to the concept of subjective well-being, the work of Ed Diener and the introduction of positive psychology, championed by Martin Seligman and Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, the field of psychology has sought to develop an engagement with, and understand, this difficult area of human emotion.
At the same time, competitiveness has been a similarly important yet neglected area of psychological research. It can be argued that the concept of competitiveness underpins main areas of psychological science - from achievement theory to social psychology. With the rise of professional sports and the advent of sports psychology renewed efforts toward the study of competitiveness and its effect upon human endeavour have captured the attention of mainstream media.
As such the focus upon these areas has intensified the question of whether over-competitiveness causes unhappiness. Competitiveness has essentially become a virtue in fields such as business and drama whilst the pursuit of happiness now involves topics as diverse as religion, economics and therapy. However, despite this evolution, it is important to consider the formation and current thinking regarding these two concepts before delving into the relationship that exists between over-competitiveness and unhappiness.
Happiness: From Aristotle to Subjective Well-Being
The definition and nature of happiness has long been debated by philosophers, politicians and scientists. Influential thinkers throughout human history including Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas and Arthur Schopenhauer have weighed in with differing accounts of what constitutes happiness and according to Kim-Prieto, Diener, Tamir, Scollon & Diener (2005) there are almost 4000 studies listed under the topic of “happiness” in the PsychInfo database.
“Happiness depends on ourselves” was the central tenet of Aristotle’s thoughts about happiness and this is a theme that is heavily echoed throughout history (Bok, 2010). Aristotle contended that happiness was not an emotion as such but rather a state of mind that is attained after a life lived according to the virtues prescribed by Greek society of the time. His statement “he is happy who is active in accordance with complete virtue... not for some chance period but throughout a complete life” (Aristotle, Ross, & Brown, 2009) reflects not only this belief but also summarises much of the early thinking about the subject.
Moving towards the contemporary thinking regarding happiness ‘subjective well-being’ is preferred as a catch-all phrase for the theories involved in this area. Wilson (1967) noted that not much substantiative evolution in the research and discussion of happiness had taken place since the time of Aristotle. Wilson summarised the concept of subjective well-being through a review of the data in the areas that individuals feel dictate happiness, stating that a happy person is “young, healthy, well-educated, well-paid, extroverted, optimistic, worry-free, religious, married person with high self-esteem, job morale, modest aspirations, of either sex and of a wide range of intelligence”. Wilson focussed on argument that external factors and situations influence happiness from a bottom-up process perspective (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999).
The foundation above has been built upon by many researchers including Diener (1984) who refined the broad framework constructed by that statement by examining the internal factors that influence happiness including personality, cognitive assessment and comparative measures of worth, through which an individual filters their reported experience of happiness. This was seen as a response to studies including those by Andrews and Withey (1976) which highlighted the inability of external factors to explain the complete nature of happiness. The integration of these processes has led researchers to investigate the relationship between happiness with well-being finding that the two concepts seem to have a positive correlation in the developed world (Blanchflower & Oswald, 2002).
Finally, the field of positive psychology, a relatively new movement in psychology, signalled a significant shift in the attitude of researchers in relation to happiness. Namely this change reflected a desire for studies that aimed to improve understanding about the positive experiences of life rather than attempting to address the negative outcomes associated with mental disorders. Seligman (2003) posited in his editorial referencing the future of positive psychology that not only was the movement about happiness but that the great lesson about the debates regarding the nature of happiness is that it can only be agreed upon that happiness can come from many different factors. This echoes the position of Averill and More (1993) that the reason psychology had, to date, failed to resolve the happiness debate was that happiness can take on so many meanings involving counterintuitive and paradoxical outcomes.
Over-competitiveness: Too much of a good thing?
As opposed to the more abstract, emotional basis of happiness discussed above competitiveness takes the form of a different psychological construct – that of motivation. In essence, motivation can be defined as the driving force behind the actions of an individual (Reeve, 2009). In the case of competitiveness this driving force lies with the desire for social comparison, with the belief that displays of superior competence and achievement show that an individual is better than others and hence of greater worth in the eyes of society (Van der Vliert & Janssen, 2002).
However the term competitiveness is argued by some researchers (Mautz & Jennions, 2011) to be much more primal – coming from the process of mate selection. It can even be argued that the field of evolutionary psychology is symbolic of competitiveness as an overarching theory regarding fitness of adaptations, social constructs and emotional development (Neuberg, Kenrick, & Schaller, 2010). It should be remembered though that within the scope of this chapter competitiveness will be defined in the narrow sense of motivation rather than the broader, more generic sense.
With the working definition of competitiveness narrowed to the motivational aspects of the term rather than the evolutionary aspects it is important to explore what this definition means for the individual. Helmreich and Spence (1978) proposed that competitiveness exists as a measurable trait related to achievement motivation and devised a scale that highlighted how reliant an individual was upon that motivational method.
Competitiveness has been positively correlated with achievement (Harackiewcisz, Barron, Carter, Lehto, & Elliot, 1997), positive creative outcomes (Franken & Brown, 1992) and economic success (Kirkcaldy & Furnham, 1993). These outcomes are typically associated with happiness.
The level of competitiveness that an individual displays is a function of a continuum rather than falling into a binary system of either competitive or non-competitive (Helmreich & Spence, 1978). It is important to realise that this means that an individual’s competitiveness can fall into a range that underlines an over-reliance upon competitive motivation and social comparison. Individuals who exhibit behaviours that are considered to be emblematic of over-competitiveness can be labelled as hypercompetitive – a term that has received empirical support and allowed for the design of appropriate measuring instruments (Ryckman, Hammer, Kaczor, & Gold, 1990).
Hypercompetitiveness has been defined by Karen Horney as an indiscriminate need by individuals to compete and win (and to avoid losing) at any cost as a means of maintaining or enhancing feelings of self-worth (Horney, 1936) and has been correlated with poor personality development and high levels of narcissism to such a degree as to pose a mental health issue (Ryckman, Thornton, & Butler, 1994).
The relationship between over-competitiveness and unhappiness
Hypercompetitive individuals strongly identify their feelings of self-worth, well-being and happiness with how other individuals perceive their worth via social comparison (Van der Vliert & Janssen, 2002). As suggested by Horney (1936), this comparison is not exercised with any forethought but rather takes the form of unrestrained competition without regard to consequence or distinction.
This reliance on others to dictate success for an individual creates reliance upon what is called extrinsic motivation for that individual to achieve happiness. For individuals who utilise extrinsic motivation the importance lies with the outcome of activities rather than enjoyment of the activity itself (Dweck & Leggett, 1988) which has been suggested to reduce the amount of happiness that an individual can gain from an activity and inhibits an individual from achieving an optimal experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Furthermore, for overly-competitive individuals, repeated exposure to poor social comparison or failure can result in a severe drop in feelings of happiness and self-efficacy with a strong relationship proposed towards learned helplessness (Abrahamson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). Learned helplessness in these cases manifests as a belief that an individual’s ability to succeed will never overcome the requirements of a task – with a drop in performance and a subsequent rise in unhappiness seemingly inevitable (Roth, 1980).
The link between competitiveness and unhappiness is not necessarily limited to the individual either, with researchers showing that a positive relationship between over-competitiveness and unhappiness exists on both the individual (Nicholls, 1984) and societal levels (Van der Vliert & Janssen, 2002). It has also been suggested that this increase in unhappiness and well-being may be due to the decreased focus on leisure and socialisation (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002).
This need to gain happiness from social comparison extends into areas that may not be immediately apparent. Sides-Moore and Tochkov (2011) found that a high level of competitiveness can contribute to college women developing depression and body image problems due to the need to compare their own body shape to a model’s body shape. A decrease in self-confidence was also apparent in other research conducted in this area (Heatherton, 1993).
Decreased self-confidence and competitiveness have also been suggested to play a role in the display of cognitive anxiety by Martens, Vealey and Burton (1990) who also declared that cognitive anxiety was strongly related to negative affect (unhappiness) in athletes due to the reduced ability of those suffering from cognitive anxiety to visualise positive outcomes or achieve better results than their peers in competition.
Furthermore the process of linking, or the concept of aligning happiness with the completion of activities, is quite common for individuals who display high levels of competitiveness with research suggesting that this process is related to increased levels of unhappiness (Schofield, Dickson, Mummery, & Street, 2002). Schofield et al. (2002) suggested that the connection of abstract outcomes to the completion of specific tasks artificially inflates the importance of the task and promotes increased pressure to perform.
However, again utilising the population of athletes, some researchers still feel that the psychological definitions of happiness and well-being are not sufficient to develop a theoretical foundation for exploration of any relationship between the two and competitiveness (Lundqvist, 2011) marking a direction for future research. It is also worth exploring the theory posited by Neumann (1975) that the modern business world, which rewards hypercompetitiveness, can create a reality in which achievement driven by extrinsic motivational factors does not bring an increase in happiness because any success is considered insufficient when compared to the next success needed to maintain social standing.
From the literature reviewed it can be noted that while competitiveness has a relatively clear definition, the definitions for over-competitiveness and happiness are not quite so clear cut. However, it should be noted that despite these problems research showed a strong relationship between an increase in competitiveness and an increase in unhappiness.
This unhappiness was not restricted to any singular reason or any field of interest with research showing that individuals who varied from female college students to professional triathletes exhibited this increase. Furthermore, it was suggested that unhappiness was able to be tracked as a collective trait for an entire society that held competitive values in high esteem.
The mechanisms that suggest a correlation between over-competitiveness and unhappiness are not distinct either. Although social comparison is a recurring theme in research regarding this topic, factors ranging from extrinsic motivation to cognitive anxiety have also been suggested to contribute to this link. Just as over-competitiveness can lead to unhappiness in any field of interest, there is no single factor to manage in an attempt to find a solution in order to try and mitigate this relationship.
It is clear that unanswered questions remain on this topic and that future research can address some of the ambiguity that exists in this difficult area of psychology. The task remains for contemporary researchers to evaluate the accuracy of previous definitions of happiness and adapt conventional theories of competitiveness to suit a world that is constantly evolving. This is especially important as people begin to focus upon the role that a demanding society plays in the subjective well-being and mental health of the planet as a whole.
Short answer questions
- Briefly outline the development of happiness from a psychological perspective.
- Briefly outline the differences between definitions of competitiveness from a psychological perspective.
- What are some practical examples of happiness?
- What are some practical examples of competitiveness?
- What is hypercompetitiveness?
- What are some reasons that an overly-competitive person might be unhappy?
- What directions can psychology take in future research about the link between over-competitiveness and unhappiness?
- Wikiversity - Achievement Motivation (Book chapter, 2011)
- Wikiversity - Competitiveness (Book chapter, 2011)
- Wikiversity - Happiness (Book chapter, 2011)
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