“Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” Voltaire (1694 – 1778)
Four billion people watched the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, significantly more than watched any other recent TV program. Perhaps the Olympic Games have an inexplicable magic such that even people like my mother who do not follow sports closely are unable to take their eyes off the TV broadcast. Last Friday, I invited some friends to enjoy the game at my place. Regardless of our different ethnicities, backgrounds, and professions (i.e. psychologists, teachers, managers, and investment bankers), the reaction we had to the matches was the same – appreciation, admiration, and ecstasy.
“Olympic Positive Emotions”
These different positive emotions emerge not just from one’s support to one’s home country. These emotions are derived beyond the boundary of races and countries: I would call this the “Olympic Positive Emotions” phenomenon. From my point of view, this phenomenon originates from our innate tendency to appreciate things that are beautiful and great. This appreciation of beauty and excellence is suggested by Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman (2004) to be one of the 24 strengths that could be found in us. According to the authors, we are able to notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.
Why do we so strongly appreciate the Olympic Games? I propose that there may be three sources for our appreciation of the beauty of the Olympic Games, all of which I have observed in myself:
1) Appreciation of aesthetics
2) Appreciation of the players
3) Appreciation of friendship and peace
1) Appreciation of Aesthetics
The first and the most obvious source of our appreciation is the sense of aesthetics when we see magnificent moves or turns in artistic events such as gymnastics and diving. We cannot stop our praise of the players that finish difficult routines with ease and beauty. Besides, the excellent and devoted performances of the players during the games also win our thundering applause. This instinctive appreciation of the beauty of sports may even be greater than our affections to our home country. We often clap for players from opponent teams for their excellent spikes during ball games such as table tennis, badminton, or tennis, and we give our genuine admiration and respect for teams who played splendid matches no matter what the final results were.
2) Appreciation of the Players
Moving beyond the games or the sports per se, we also appreciate athletes who are dedicated to give their very best to the audience. We are able to experience the players’ efforts, devotion, concentration, determination, and their persistence towards goal pursuit when they are playing, as well as from their reactions after the games. When we share their happiness on the medal podium, we are not simply happy for them because of the medal reward, but also because we recognize their thousands of hours of training and the efforts behind their glory. As John F. Kennedy said, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” The happiness and positive characters of the athletes are also the sources of positive messages and emotions that are transmitted to everyone. For examples of the players at their best, see my article about Michael Phelps or Caroline Miller’s article about Dara Torres.
3) Appreciation of Peace and Friendship
Lastly, we also appreciate the friendly and peaceful atmosphere of contesting that is found in the Olympic Games. This is something broader than the event or the sports as it is the wish of all mankind: Friendship and Peace, the traditional Olympic spirit. This is demonstrated in the congratulations and praise from opponent players and coaches, and in support from the audience to the winners and, more importantly, to the losing side. This tone highlights and advocates the positive characteristics of humankind and thus also elicits our positive emotions. As the host of the Olympic Games, it is not surprising that the stadium would be enthralled whenever Chinese players are present. Yet I am also amazed to see the Chinese also show their support and encouragement to other players from different countries, and I thought, “Yes, this is the world and community we should live in.” I am really proud of being a Chinese as well as a part of the global community.
Some people wonder if the idea “Competition comes after friendship” contradicts with the spirit of sport contests, but I surely disagree. Because if the Olympic Games, or any other sports event, are just about winning and include many unethical incidents, the events would not be as worthwhile of being appreciated nor as touching to one’s heart.
“Everyday Positive Emotions”
The 2008 Olympic Games will end with praise and applause within one week. However, the human insights from the event – like the appreciation of beauty and excellence, strengths stories of different players, and the spirit of friendship and peace – may last long and we may continue applying these to our everyday lives. You may have a different inspiration than I have, but I say that the most important thing we can do is to extend the “Olympic Positive Emotions” phenomenon to the “Everyday Positive Emotions” phenomenon.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A classification and handbook. NewYork:
Timothy, its interesting that according to Peterson’s research appreciation of beauty and excellence has a low correlation with life satisfaction. I suspect the message is that perhaps rather than being an “arm chair sports person” its better to get of our butts and do something.
What do you think?
Wayne, thanks for your proactive message (as usual, haha)!
Yes, I agree. Only with appreciation of beauty and excellence would probably be unable to enhance life satisfaction much, yet lack of this appreciation could blind one from many enjoyments in life, which would also hinder satisfaction.
I got this inspiration from the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (which is introduced by Tal Ben-Shahar). In the book there is a story about a group people trying to climb up the Himalayas. Those who only care about reaching the top of the mountain suffered a lot on the way as they did not find the enjoyments, and eventually they failed to achieve the goal as they also lost the desire and strength to move on. On the contrary, other people enjoyed the beautiful scenes throughout the journey and were usually able to reach the top of the mountain in the end.
I guess you would be interested in reading it.
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” at http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Motorcycle-Maintenance-Inquiry/dp/0553277472
Timothy, thank you for a, once again, beautifully written and inspiring article. Pure positive psychology in practice.
It is amazing if we observe how Olympic games can give us dozens of hints and inspirations for the future research of positive psychology.
A Question: Why does 10NBC in the U.S. play the beach volleyball game in the evening time exclusively, whereas there are lots of other games going on at the same time?? Can anyone figure out how the percentage of nudity can affect the viewing rate? 🙂
Timothy – thanx – I have read the book. The message I took away was different to yours. Its not the destination that’s important -its the journey.
This is consistent with research that shows that while achieving goals is important – celebrating milestones along the way is more important.
Too many people are more content to sit down and watch the olympics and live their lives vicariously through others – not a good formula for happiness. Happy people do things
As an aside I just read some research that suggests that the happiest people don’t watch television. Again think of all the time people waste watching the olympics.
On the surface the beauty and excellence of Olympic seem to be kinds of extrinsic concerns, like amazing physical movements, winning the competition, and getting glory or honorable position as players. As mentioned above watching T.V. may not be supportive to well-being (although I think it’s important what kind of programs are), if people feel positive emotions, it’s thought to be significant to see or interpret the beauty and excellence from the intrinsic view points.
And also, self-expansion theory suggests that to share exciting activities or experiences with other increases relationship satisfaction. It may be that this suggestion has a relation to enjoying Olympic in a way.
I really enjoyed your column, especially the emphasis on friendship and peace exemplified by the emotional consonance and congratulations, the unique appreciation opponents in competition have for one another once the competition is over, even as the adrenaline is still flowing. I think we all feel relief and happiness when we see that. It reminded me of an anecdote I read about a white guy involved in a psychological study of white racism. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten the details of how the response to racial difference was measured; perhaps an online study in which slower reaction time to identify the face of a person of color previously seen, compared to white faces previously seen, was measured; or some measure of anxiety. In any case the guy thought he was anti-racist but just could not change his score showing he was just like most white people, and he got really frustrated. So then he spent an hour a day for a week studying closely the faces of African American Olympic athletes, paying attention to their features and expressions and feeling his feelings of admiration and awe; he also looked at artists, writers, and pictures of African American folks enjoying family life. The next time he took the test his score finally showed no difference between his responses to white people and people of color. In terms of what we know about neuroplasticity, this really makes sense! So I say — go global with your admiration and awe; me, I watch about 2 hours of television a year, but I LOVE the Olympics and feel energized and inspired when I watch.
(Has anyone else come across that anecdote of that inspired self-changer determined to prove to psychologists that racism is not so hard-wired as some argue? If so, please give me the reference!)
Last comment regarding appreciation of beauty and excellence: I suspect that those of us who just love people as they are and love nature in its fantastic creativity have very high life satisfaction. But it could be that those who focus on appreciation of others’ high achievements get stuck on the “demon of comparison” — why am I not as good at x y or z as that other person… which could lead to lower life satisfaction. What’s your hypothesis?