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Faster, Higher, Stronger…Happier? Olympic Athletes and the Philosophy of Well-Being

Written by Mackenzie Graham

Last Sunday marked the end of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Olympic athletes train intensely for years in preparation for a single opportunity at winning gold. Unfortunately, most of them will not be successful. Many will have missed out on a medal by fractions of a second or tenths of a point, an ill-timed crash or fall, or a split-second mental error. In some respects, it hardly seems worth all of the effort and sacrifice, required to be an Olympic athlete (at least in most cases). To focus and train so long and so hard on a single task, only to fall just short of one’s goal, seems an irrational way to organize one’s life.

On the other hand, we might think that this pessimistic view completely misses the point, and that Olympic athletes are actually living some of the best lives possible. The philosophy of well-being is concerned with what things have ‘prudential value’; what things make a life good for the person who is living it? Three conceptions of well-being have largely dominated the philosophical literature. Hedonist views of prudential value hold that, at a fundamental level, the only thing that is ‘good for me’ (or anyone else), is the experience of pleasure, and the only thing that is bad for me is the avoidance of pain. The best life for me is the one which maximizes my experience of pleasure, and minimizes my experience of pain.

Desire-satisfaction views hold that satisfying my desires is what has prudential value for me; what makes my life go well is getting the things that I want. Both hedonist and desire-satisfaction views hold that what makes something good depends on my own subjective attitude. Pleasure is good because I like the feeling of pleasure. Satisfying my desires is good because my desires are states of affairs that I want. Conversely, objective-list views hold that what is prudentially good for me does not depend solely on what I value or desire. Some things simply are good for me, regardless of how I feel about them. Having these things will make my life go well.

How do we know what things are good for us, if not by appealing to our desires, or pleasurable feelings? One way of explaining objective accounts of well-being is by appealing to a perfectionist account of human nature; call this view ‘human nature perfectionism’. According to human nature perfectionism, prudential value consists in activities that develop my human nature.

Does this mean that the good life is the same for every human being? Not necessarily. Human nature perfectionism can account for the fact that the best human life for one person might be different from the best human life for another, by recognizing that some humans may be better able to develop certain capacities of their human nature. Certain activities and pursuits might be the best way for me to promote aspects of my human nature, but different activities and pursuits might be best for someone else. This suggests that for some people, pursuing excellence of their human nature might mean focussing on intellectual pursuits, or becoming a great scientist, or focussing on an athletic endeavour.

Olympic athletes represent the pinnacle of athletic achievement in their respective sports. Put another way, they have achieved excellence in a certain aspect of their human nature. It would seem that on a broadly perfectionist account of well-being, then, that they are living the best lives possible for themselves. Even if they fail to fulfil a life-long desire of winning a gold medal, or if they experience the emotional pain of disappointment after falling just short of the podium, these athletes have a high-level of well-being. They have maximized the development of their nature.

It seems a bit puzzling then, that so many athletes, even those who do win medals, report feeling unhappy, or even depressed, after competing in the Olympics. An article published in the Atlantic quotes numerous athletes as feeling isolated, anxious, or depressed, for months or even years after competing. Many feel their entire identity as inextricably bound to competing in their sport, and feel a profound sense of loss and lack of direction after finishing competition. This hardly sounds like individuals who are living their best possible lives.

Those who support a human nature perfectionist account of value might argue that Olympic athletes simply aren’t fulfilling their human nature. For example, the Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia —which can be translated as ‘human flourishing’— is a perfectionist account of value which holds that the best life is gained through the exercise of reason in accordance with virtue. For Aristotle, the practice of philosophical contemplation is the way to achieve the best human life. Perhaps athletes who feel unfulfilled or depressed after finishing completion have simply pursued a mistaken conception of their human nature.

Reasonable people might disagree about the essence of our ‘human nature’, or even if there is such a thing. Reasonable people might also disagree about the best way to achieve excellence in our human nature, whatever it may be. In any case, what is interesting about the case of elite athletes like those competing in the Olympics is that they are willing to commit so much to their chosen sport in the first place. This suggests that there must be some level of enjoyment to the activity of training and developing one’s talents. The contribution to their well-being comes not from the achievement of excellence, or the activity of developing one’s excellence, but from the enjoyment one takes in the activity.

On this sort of account, well-being consists in the positive response one has to the conditions of one’s life that one truly values and endorses. Athletes are faring well insofar as they genuinely value the activities they are undertaking, and gain a positive feeling from undertaking them at a high level. Thus, even if they fail to win a medal, athletes at the top of their sport are still faring well because they are enjoying an activity they value highly. (Indeed, I think this partly explains our apprehension at the idea of very young athletes who are compelled to train for a specific sport. It is not clear that they value the activity they are pursuing, and so it is unclear that they are gaining any welfare benefit).

The problem arises when they can no longer enjoy that activity, but have yet to find some other valued activity or pursuit that they respond to positively. Perhaps this is a caution to elite athletes, with respect to well-being. It is important to have a well-rounded collection of values, passions, and pursuits, so that one’s well-being does not rest too heavily on any particular value. Whether this sort of well-rounded approach to life is compatible with the singular focus it takes to be an elite athlete is an open question, and so, it is an open question whether elite athletes really are faring well, whether they win gold or not. In any case, thinking about the sorts of things we value, and how we have organized our lives to pursue these values, is a worthwhile exercise we can all benefit from.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. It seems a bit rough to single out athletes. Similar points could be made about any hyper-specialist pursuits. Artists in their garrets don’t exactly have a reputation as being the life of the party, either. I’d be surprised if academics came out as well balanced, too. I think a big part of it is probably the anxiety of playing in winner-take-all markets: (1) more people aspire to be number 1 than can be number 1; (2) even if you’re the King Piranha, there are others hungry to take your place, and the handover of power is unlikely to be gentle. That set of payoffs doesn’t look like a promising place to find everlasting peace.

  2. The critics are panning Red Sparrow. I”ll wait for RedBox. Larry, My daughter and I went to see Black Panther yesterday. Enjoyed it immensely. The little sister and leader of Pretorian Guard were standouts. Your critique was very good. Stan Lee and Vaughn Bode are still my favorite cartoon/comic book artists. Good to see Stan doing well. Sad but understandable what happened to hedonist Bode.

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