For the Win: Sports Fandom Actually Good for Your Health

By Martha Michael

Sports and Your Emotions

While the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” is a phrase generally attributed to the athletes themselves, the same emotional roller coaster ride applies to fans as well. And there are examples of both the ups and downs that sports lovers experience when they emotionally attach themselves to a team.

Thrill of Victory

An article on Huffington Post makes the case that being a sports fan contributes to your health and happiness. There is research supporting the idea that following a sports team has mental health benefits.

Sports lovers who connect themselves to a favorite team experience greater happiness and have higher levels of well-being, according to sports psychology professor Daniel Wann of Murray State University. And research shows that it occurs regardless of the success of the team.

A sense of community is one explanation for the beneficial effects of being a sports fan -- and you get that regardless of the team you’re following. It’s like any other hobby involving a group of like-minded individuals. You gain a sense of belonging centered around what you identify with, and those connections and affiliations pay off with a healthier psyche.

Whether or not you’re paying attention to the game, the sense of community reduces feelings of loneliness and alienation.

The movie Fever Pitch is a cinematic example of the positive effects of fandom. In the romantic comedy that stars Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, the main character explains his extreme devotion to both the Boston Red Sox and his fellow season ticket holders around him.

“I like being part of something that’s bigger than me,” he says. “It’s good for your soul to invest in something you can’t control.”

The Agony of Defeat

It’s logical to assume that the ups and downs of a team’s success would make it burdensome to tie your happiness to it. Even in the midst of a game you may experience a rapid heart rate when your team scores followed by sweating and despair when your team makes an error or loses.

A blog post by an online counseling network links some instances of depression to a person’s investment in a favorite sports team. Calling it “sports fan depression,” Thriveworks founder Anthony Centore, PhD, says that your team’s loss on the field or court can negatively affect your mood.

One of the main factors in creating happiness for fans -- community -- is one antidote to sports fan depression, Centore says. Following a loss, you may benefit from reaching out to friends and family and engaging them in ways that distance yourself from the hype of the game. He also suggests that fans check their investment in their team and consider a possible emotional void that may need attention.

Is it a coincidence that Las Vegas is both the sports betting capital of the world and also has more suicides than any other city in the country? At 34.5 per 100,000 people annually, Vegas has three times more suicides than the national rate, which is 10.7.

But comparing sports betting in Vegas to suicide may be a stretch, as Sin City is infamous for far more. And the trouble with drawing such conclusions is that suicide is linked to many issues including unemployment, race relations and drug addiction.

California has the largest number of professional sports teams with 16, yet the suicide rate is the sixth lowest in the country. The rate, however, is trending up. The Sacramento Bee reports a rise in California’s suicide rates from 1999 to 2016. Numbers rose by 50 percent, reaching 10.9 suicides per 100,000 residents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

But there’s no proven causal relationship between numbers of fans in the stands and the rise in suicides. In fact, when you look at areas of the state with the highest rates of suicide, the statistics are adversely related to the presence of professional sports. More people die from suicide in rural areas than in cities. Trinity County, which is on the Northern Redwood Coast of California, has triple the statewide number of suicides.

Nationalism, or Pride of Ownership?

An article by The Conversation links suicide rates to the World Cup, showing a positive effect.

The suicide rate in France -- mostly among men age 30 to 44 -- dropped when the country hosted the World Cup in 1998. Over the month-long event, suicides were down 10 percent, and dropped even more on the days after France competed.

Likewise, when New Zealand hosted the World Cup for rugby in 2012, suicides almost ceased, according to Wellington newspaper Stuff. The positive trend was similar to suicide rates following the London bombings, the September 11 attacks in the U.S., and earthquakes in Christchurch, which experts say is due to “social cohesion.”

Sharing a passion for a team is similar to the aftermath of disasters, as members of society become united in purpose.

“Suicide occurs because people have a lack of sense of belonging, and a sense that they don't make a valued contribution,” says Maria Bradshaw, founder of Community Action on Suicide Education Prevention and Research. “So, when you have things like the earthquake and the Cup, people who are feeling like that suddenly have something in common with everyone else.”

If you’re a betting person, you’re better off backing the idea that sports fandom is a benefit, not a threat, to your happiness.

It ties you to fellow fans and creates a sense of community, which mental health professionals tout as a top factor for well-being. And it can tie you to your own heritage as well, when season ticket holders pass them down through generations.

In other words, when it comes to being a fan and supporting your team, “Fight On.”

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