Let’s face it — September has been kind of brutal for fans of the Minnesota Twins and Vikings.
But, hey, being a supporter of your local sports teams — even when those teams are losing (badly) — may have a significant upside, particularly for men. For, according to an article in the October issue of Men’s Health, men who closely follow their local teams are happier and healthier than their nonfan male peers.
The article is written by Paul John Scott, a freelance health and science writer based in Rochester, Minn., who calls himself “an emotionally scarred, highly identified Vikings fan.” (Scott will be familiar to some MinnPost readers, as he has written for this publication in the past.)
After interviewing several experts and reading the studies on the psychology of sports fandom, Scott reached this conclusion:
Beer commercials, and some women I know, portray the typical male fixation with sports as a symptom of primal urges and arrested development. But according to a large body of psychological and neurobiological research, men follow sports because the benefits of doing so are bigger than anything we get from a pill, pushup, or paycheck. In fact, man-caving the game every week is more than just a replacement for fraternal lodges and bowling leagues of days past. It’s an expression of something we’re losing in our overextended, underfriended lives: a connection with the world around us.
A sense of attachment
One of the experts Scott talked to is Daniel Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State University. He’s been researching the psychology of sports fandom since the early 1990s.
“When you have high levels of interest in following the local team,” Wann told Scott, “then you have low levels of loneliness and alienation, and high levels of satisfaction with life.”
But, according to the research, to experience those psychological benefits — “the sense of attachment to something grander than the self,” as Wann and his colleagues explained it in one of their studies — you need to be intensely interested in a local team. Just following sports in general does not appear to have the same effect.
Wann’s studies have also shown, adds Scott, that “followers of a sports team were no more likely to be hostile than anyone else; had more vigor and less fatigue, confusion, anger, and tension than nonfans; were more extroverted, open, and conscientious than nonfans; and possessed more trust in their fellow man.”
“That’s pretty much a full and complete parts list for human contentment,” writes Scott.
(I’m not quite clear how the findings that sports fans are not likely to be more hostile fits in with other research that has associated football and soccer defeats with socially destructive behavior, including increases in traffic deaths, domestic violence and alcohol-related crime.)
A suprising effect of ‘Miracle’
Scott offers a couple of fascinating facts regarding suicide rates and historic sports events:
- In the United States, February 22, 1980, had the fewest suicides of any February 22 in all of the 1970s and 1980s. Fact: It was also the date of the Miracle on Ice, when an underdog U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the powerhouse Soviet Union, causing Americans to briefly share a feeling of connection.“It really had an effect on people,” says Thomas Joner, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the author of a study of the phenomenon, which was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 2006. “It rallied people, and it brought people together.”
Suicide rates are lower on Super Bowl Sunday, suggesting that “the winning and losing part is not the essential ingredient,” Joiner says. “It’s togetherness.”
That togetherness, or sense of connectness, appears to be the key reason that following local sports teams is good for health — particularly for men’s health.
“Sharing a victory with like-minded fans makes you feel incredibly connected for that period,” John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, told Scott. “And for it to last into the rest of your week, it’s going to take getting to know people who share this fondness, so you develop friendships.”
“Me watching sports with other guys is not nearly as rich an experience as my dad going to the Masonic temple with his dad,” Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and the author of “Guyland,” added. “But I wouldn’t worry as much about the content of the connections. I think it’s the fact of doing it — walking into a bar with a game on and sitting down with guys you don’t know and talking about it. Walking out, you feel a little better about your life.”
I suspect, though, that Twins and Vikings fans would feel even better about their lives if the teams racked up a few more wins.
Unfortunately, Scott’s article is not available online. You’ll need to buy the October print issue of Men’s Health, which you can find on most newsstands.