Competition, Anger, and Mental Health


By Troy Headrick

After I’d posted “Practicing Patience,” Betul Erbasi and I had a really interesting exchange.  (By the way, Betul is one of Pointless Overthinking’s regular contributors and a Turk who is working on her PhD at the University of Southern California.)  The topic of this conversation was anger and American culture.  I pointed out that I have felt really angry since returning to my home country four years ago.  I then went further and said that Americans, in general, seem very short-tempered and frustrated.

Betul responded by commenting that “America is driven by a desire to be at the top all the time, including the individuals.  That probably makes people angrier.  You have to do things otherwise you fall behind.  A lot of competition.  We don’t really have that much of it in Turkey, not to this extent.”

From that moment forward, I knew what my next PO blog post would be about.  I’d examine the role that competition plays in shaping the American worldview and culture.  And I’d argue that such an obsession with winning does real damage to the nation and the mental health of its citizenry.

It’s currently American football season.  That means millions of Americans will be spending large chunks of their Saturdays and Sundays cheering on their favorite football teams as they “do battle” on the gridiron.  If you Google “sports and American culture,” you’ll find page after page of links to articles that demonstrate how profoundly American culture is shaped by competitive sports.  Anyone who’s lived in the United States for any length of time knows that the country is really sports crazy.  In fact, on George Mason University’s Sport and American Culture website, the author argues that “Sports matter in American history and in modern American culture.  Our interest in sport reaches across dividing lines of age, income, geography, gender, and ethnicity.  Wherever we go and whoever we meet, the world of sport gives us something in common—a shared language.  It’s no surprise, then, that the study of sport gives us unique insights into American life.”

In a country where sports are incredibly important, elections are referred to as “races” and “contests,” and rich people are thought of as “winners” with the poor being viewed as “losers.”  American capitalism is viewed as the gold standard as far as economic systems are concerned because it reenacts what takes places on the athletic pitch, field, or court.  The “fittest” survive and thrive because they are able to crush their adversaries.  The big swallow up the little.  The most powerful and the fastest beat their opponents to the punch.  Few rise, many fall.  Those who rise are treated like heroes and are often richly rewarded for their prowess.

In a world where all are at war with all, most will lose if we define winning as beating others.  The stakes couldn’t be higher in such a situation.  If one doesn’t win, one runs the risk of going hungry, being unemployed, losing the “deal,” not making the sale (and thus the commission), being looked upon as an economic failure (or loser), and so on and so forth.

But what would happen if we began to focus more on cooperation rather than competition?  What if the winner was the one who was able to establish the most allies and friends, to build the biggest network, create the kind of conditions that nurtured the value of a “common good” rather than individual achievement?

In such a case, would there be fewer “losers”?  What if we got rid of the whole notion that the world is made up of those who “win” and those who “lose”?  How would life be different?  Would humans be less stressed?  Would they be happier?  Would there be more peace and prosperity?  Would prosperity even matter anymore?

All questions worth pondering and discussing.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy:  Blog & Art.

42 thoughts on “Competition, Anger, and Mental Health

  1. The crazy thing is I’ve known people who genuinely believed they were team oriented and talked up cooperation while shutting down everyone else around them. America baby.

    1. I know what you mean. I’ve known such folks myself. I often wonder how long a country can remain stable if there is no deep and profound sense of the “common good.” America is so fragmented and egocentric and polarized and tribal (and you name it) that I really fear for where we headed. How can such a place be fixed?

    1. Great point! I also wonder what would take place if we could all relax and learn to accept who we are (warts and all). I know this sound a bit utopian. Some would argue that there’s this deep restlessness inside us all that makes us constantly want to strive and improve and go up the ladder. I wonder if this is true. Let’s just imagine that we could re-engineer human beings. Could we teach them to be happy with what they have, who they are, and to choose contentment over a kind of relentless striving? I don’t know the answer to this question? I’m more into asking questions than providing answers.

  2. This is, by far, one of the very best blog posts I’ve read in quite some time! Excellent observations! America is indeed an angry, competitive society and that is deleterious to mental health. Thank you!

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you liked the post. I think I ask so many questions about the US because it is the place I was born and spent many years of my life. I see that it has great potential but often falls short of being that “shining city on the hill.” I guess living abroad got me asking questions about this place too. Are you from the US? Do you mind if I ask? Also, do you blog? If so, I’d like to check out your writing. Why not leave a link here to your site so that I and others could check it out…

  3. Obviously, I agree to the points above. The point is, even if we don’t want to compete as an individual in the US and we want to cooperate with people, we are forced to compete so we can survive. It feels like a dead-end and that has bad effects on human psychology.

    1. I wonder if competition is really “natural” or if it is sort of manufactured to keep us productive and “busy.” After all, economies need zillions of worker bees who are constantly in motion. There has to be another way to organize life than this! I know I’m being a bit utopian here, but that’s okay. If we can imagine another way of being, then it is possible that this other way can be achieved.

      1. I suppose we can push against this busyness ourselves. Just because the larger culture holds and promulgates a certain set of values doesn’t mean we have to hold and promulgate them too.

  4. In my own way, I’ve dropped out of the race. I don’t care if this team wins, this thing is the best, or if owning Q gives me status. I’m out of spoons for that sort of nonsense. Now, tell me a friend is in need, there’s a pet to rescue, a cake to bake, or someone to study with? I’m on that.
    I had this terrific conversation with a pal not too long ago, about how amazing it would be if kindness was the currency we valued, over greed or money or *shudder* power. Obviously, talking with a pal about such things meant we were more or less in alignment there. But not “keeping score”? Shocking! Unheard of! Un-American.
    The more we feed these toxic ideas, that you have to drive this, live, here, own this other things, be “better” than, or at least “keep up” with your neighbors, the deeper in the hole we go. My life is too precious to be spent coating it in envy and fear.

    1. Yes. I’ve come to this place in my life as well. I think it takes a bit of maturity to get there. The young, it seems to me, still want to “make their mark.” Once most of one’s career is behind one, one focuses more on the end of work and less on reputation (and power–shudder) and such things. This is liberating. I guess, in some ways, we who are deep into our middle years have something over the young. I know this sounds weird because American culture is so much centered on youth and activity and “achievement” and such.

      1. Public achievement is overrated, especially if it comes at the loss of personal and home life. I was watching one of my favored YouTubers, and he said this really great thing about how he’d like for there to be more public recognition of his work, but at the same time, he felt totally comfortable in his life as it is. He wasn’t willing to give up his level of anonymity or personal time to be “more”. This is why he’s one of my favorites.

      2. I’ve often wondered why so many Americans want to become celebrities. Does this point to some deep sense of inadequacy? People judge themselves based on the number of their social media followers and seek to become internet “Influencers.” People want their postings to go “viral.” Because I’m really a closet psychologist, I find this phenomenon to be extremely interesting. I suppose it’s not just an American thing. What is it about this era where so many seem to crave notoriety to the point they’d do almost anything to achieve it?

      3. Some of it is social media. People see other people like them making a living online sharing their passions or interests, and think “Hey, I can do that”. It takes more than the ability to play a game to be have a “Let’s Play” channel. You’ve got to have personality, the money for the gear, skills, a sense of humor, and the commitment to play even on the days you don’t want to. Most of these people have editing software, and experience as well. It’s not as easy as it looks. Or testing make ups, or doing craft tutorials, or the millions of options there are out there.
        I think it really comes down to population. It’s kind of a crass way to explain it, but with 8 billion people on the planet, on a basic level, people understand that there are more of “you” than there are of “me” and they want to be heard or seen or acknowledged. It seems a fairly human response, and at the same time – whoof – you’ve got people who are famous for being famous and not contributing. Greta? She’s amazing (can’t recall her last name, but you know who I mean.) That’s someone who should be famous! Who should inspire others. The guy who can play Mario Cart with his toes as he shoves a hamburger in his face? Not so much.
        There is also a tremendous pressure on American kids to “achieve” – scholastically, in sports, in whatever extra curricular activities they are in. It’s a way to be “better” than their parents, who may not have the money to push them through higher education. The American dream is to have more, not be satisfied with what we have.

  5. Without the notion of loser, humans would definitely be less stressed but not necessarily happy depending on its distinction with contentment, while there would be peace where meaning of prosperity would shift from individual profit to collective benefit.

    1. Yes! This is exactly what I was getting at. I also wonder how truly stable a country can be if it totally loses the notion of “common good.” In such a world, it seems like every person for him or herself. Thanks for distilling my thoughts down in such a simple and clear way!

  6. Common good or not, the most number of allies/likes and the biggest networking do make winners, in a social networking platform, especially when that is used for business, where apparent cooperation may translate into market competition.

    1. Allies is another word for friends. In a hyper-competitive capitalist economic system, I think it is harder to make real friends for some reason. I may have something to do with everyone being so busy that they have trouble finding time to connect on a deep, emotional level. When I was living overseas, the Americans I knew in those faraway places seemed so much more at ease than the Americans I meet in America. Of course, it’s hard to generalize and my evidence is purely anecdotal…Thank you very much for your comment.

  7. Very interesting point. I guess there’s a part of me that believes that in going back to the times of the caveman, or Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest for example, there is an element of dog-eat-dog which has always existed. Is it so necessary now however? And indeed, can those thousands of years of learning how to exist in such a harsh world ever be eradicated. I was watching some young children (aged about 4) in Central Park yesterday playing ball and it was interesting to see how even at that age there was a ‘top dog’ or ‘leader’ of the pack who took control, a few who were trying to challenge him, and then a couple of ‘followers’ who watched and listened and stood very much on the sidelines, unwilling to compete with the testosterone flying. It seems to me that this carries on through school and then into the workplace. For me, the best type of person is one who can be a leader but also a follower – a difficult trait perhaps, but we can’t always be the best and most knowledgeable at everything. Sometimes it shows kindness and restraint to allow others to take the helm as we all have our strengths it’s just that some don’t want to shout about it. Phew! I’m exhausted after that … great post and very thought provoking! Katie

    1. Thanks for your very thoughtful and detailed comment and for the kind words. I found your observations of children in the park quite interesting. A part of me believes that there’s something innate in people that makes them competitive and hierarchical. On the other hand, children are like sponges and begin to soak up everything they see going on around them at an extraordinarily young age. A child sees a parent acting “alpha” and unconsciously begins to mimic such behavior. Actually, we’ve stumbled into the whole “nature versus nurture” conundrum. Your comment was equally thought-provoking. And, like you, thinking about all this is exhausting and headache producing! By the way, I’m going to check out your blog if you write one.

      1. Oh thank you … that would be lovely! Yes, you really compelled me to write and give my thoughts. I love that, when someone’s post makes you think deeply. It was a great post and yes, you’re right about children mimicking adult behaviour; I’ve seen that very close to home. Katie

  8. Really interesting insight. Competition is ultimately, domination of your competitor. This is a classic (and very common) conflict resolution strategy. The legal system is based on winning and losing cases, for example. For the losing side, you will have had to submit to the winner. This is frustrating and painful when you are equal to your competitor, but imagine how angry you would feel if they were more powerful than you? What if the system favoured the winning competitor because of their social status, race or gender. It would seriously anger me and unfair access to resources is one of the factors that leads to war ! The USA is a good example of this and I have certainly felt that consumerism makes this competition worse but believe it, it exists everywhere. There are other strategies and ways of coping with this which I have written about, especially within a conflict context. Thanks for making me think !

    1. Thank you for making me think! And I apologize for the lateness of my response. I often get so many comments posted to my blogs that I often have trouble keeping up and then the occasional one falls through the cracks (as was the case with yours). Having lived in other parts of the world for significant periods of time, I know that America is really a dog-eat-dog place. Americans often feel as if they’ve been drafted into a war of all against all. This is unhealthy on so many different levels and produces amazing amounts of anger and frustration and powerlessness. It also causes many to simple “drop out.” They give up, fade away, and live lives of quiet desperation. By the way, I looked at some of your writing and think you’d make a great guest writer here. We are also looking for full-time writers, so if your first piece works out, you could do a weekly post for us like the rest of us do. If this idea interests you, reach out to me at

  9. Really interesting post. I think like always is the case in life, there’s many angles to view it from. On one hand you could say that by breaking down individualism and a core focus on one’s own gains, the world would benefit from people coming together a little more. But on the other hand, without competion, what would act as the bar to strive towards, and would the human condition be better or worse if we had nothing to measure ourselves against? You’ve left happily pondering life now, cheers

    1. Thank you, Ryan, and you’ve given me lots to think about with your comment. My wife often gets upset with me because I tend to compare myself with others, especially those in our family who make more money than we do. That’s what bugs her. That I compare myself mostly in an unfavorable way. I never compare myself with those who make less than I/we do. This is the nature of comparing ourselves with others and comparisons of this type happen in places where being “better” than others matters. Being is such places might drive innovation and such (and those are good things) but look at that word “drive” very carefully and think about the implications surrounding it. “Driven” people. What happens when people are “driven”? It might make them busier and such but what does it do to them at a deeper level. I have lived in places where people were less driven and didn’t sit around comparing themselves to others in the unfavorable sort of way I do. Those people certainly seemed happier. They live in small countries with moderate ambitions. I don’t know. I dream of a world where we don’t have to think in either/or ways. Either we are super competitive and “successful” or we don’t act these ways and aren’t.

      1. Amazingly put. I’ve just left Thailand after 3 months of living there and on a whole the locals were some of the most humble and beautiful people I have met. Like you said about comparing one’s self to others, the locals helped each other, young and old, and seemed to pride themselves on acts of humanity rather than any form of material possession. If you find that world give me a shout and i’ll buy you a beer!

      2. Your Thailand experience sounds similar to experiences I’ve had in the “developing world.” We call them developing because they’re not rich. They might turn the tables on us. They could call us developing if we’d learn to cooperate and be less envious. More cooperation and less envy would certainly be a sign of a developed country and people.

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