Positive and Negative Experiences – Part 2

I had an earlier post on the role of positive and negative experiences in living a meaningful sport-life. I mentioned that we might have focused too much on positive experiences when thinking of meaningfulness in sport. In this post, I will look into a couple of more studies on how the emotional tone of our experiences might relate to meaning and how they can inspire our thinking in relation to our sport-lives.

Roy Baumeister (2018), whose work has explored the differences between meaning and happiness, suggested that these sometimes involve a different emotional valence – that is, happiness is typically associated with positive emotions whereas meaning can also be associated with negative emotions. One striking example he gives is arguing – a situation involving negative emotions. Viewing oneself as argumentative person was associated with lower happiness but greater meaning.

So should we pick more fights to live more meaningful lives? Well, that might not be the point. Baumeister’s conclusion was that arguing was more like a side effect that results from being passionately involved in life. He suggested:

People who are seriously involved in complex cultural undertakings and care passionately about them may find themselves needing to argue when they encounter someone who has a different view. It is thus not the interpersonal activity of arguing per se, but the passionate involvement, that enhances meaning (Baumeister, 2018)

This reminds me of recent studies on athlete activism. For example, Haslett et al. (2020) described the risks (e.g., of losing sponsorships and emotional support) para athletes took when ‘speaking out’ for things they cared about. Meaningful engagement can come with lower happiness, anxiety and worry.

What are some of your peak experiences in sport and physical activity? Running up to Cadair Idris early in the morning when others were sleeping is one of mine.

On the other hand, a study by Murphy and Bastian (2020) indicated that it might not be a question of positive vs negative, but rather a degree of emotional intensity of experience that is central to meaning. That is, either extremely positive or negative experiences would be sites where we might look for meaning, partly because they trigger contemplation. The authors argued that their work provides an alternative perspective to the ‘ingredients’ of well-being – a notion which has often been associated with calmness, meditation and mindfulness.

As they put it,

“Intense or peak experiences may be more likely to define who we are, providing some insight into why people at times behave in counter-hedonic ways, seeking out objectively unpleasant experiences” (Murphy & Bastian, 2020).

In the world of sport, it is very easy to identify “unpleasant” experiences. Running a marathon or doing any long endurance event is hardly pleasant all the way through. And we have all these collision sports where getting bruised is part of the game.

What is the practical message of all this? Well, even if intense experiences might play a part in meaningful living, I think it is dangerous to forget our facticity in the pursuit of intensity.

The sporting body is fragile and my running studies (as well as numerous others) have shown the dangers of exceeding one’s limits. Severe running injuries or developing an overtraining syndrome might take months if not years to recover from. Intense experiences such as running a marathon often require months of less intense experiences such as steady, routine runs where not much happens. Otherwise, it is not sustainable. Being ‘out’ for a long time due to an injury is probably going to make our lives less happy and meaningful.

Which brings us to a good point for closing: Baumeister also emphasised that meaning in life involves a timespan which encompasses the past and the future. In sport, it is so often said it is the journey and not the goal that matters. The marathon might be the high point (whether a success or disappointment), but its meaningfulness also derives from all those ordinary runs weeks and months before that.

Further reading

Baumeister, R. F. (2018). Happiness and meaningfulness as two different and not entirely compatible versions of the good life. The Social Psychology of Living Well, 21-33.

Published by Noora Ronkainen

Researcher | Author | Meaningful Sport 🗻🏄| Co-host Physical Activity Researcher Podcast🎙

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