Why We Compete and What We Compete For


Much as you might wish to, you cannot avoid competition. But why do we compete? For what do we compete? Here are some answers:

  • The Simplest Answer: We’ve been programmed — hard-wired — by evolution. Those who survived times of limited resources and danger out-foxed the ones who didn’t. The law of the jungle is still evident even among baseball fans grappling for a batted-ball hit into the stands  — a thing, after all, of little real value. Our ancestors were the fittest in the battle for survival, at least if their survival led them to seed the next generation.
  • Glory (Kleos): The ancient Greeks wanted to be recalled in story and song. This was a time before a desirable afterlife had been conceived. Then, as now, the idea of living forever was attractive. Put your name on a tall building, write a book, win the World Cup — they are all the same. Of course, eternity is a long time to last.
  • Desirable Mates: If you triumph in competition you have a wider choice of sexual companions. Again, this was hard-wired in our ancestors long ago, but still drives us. Appearance motivates men more than women. Surprise! The evolutionary explanation is that the proper array of physical features gave prehistoric man the signal of a female’s capacity to give birth and nurse children. Man was driven to produce hardy little ones who would carry his genetic material forward. Thus, he needed a healthy mate.
  • Money, Status, and Power: These are tied to the previous three. We also think (wrongly) that large amounts of such items will make us much happier than the next person. Materialism per se doesn’t, but having the capacity to win those material things registers on the female radar screen more than a man’s good looks. Women are inclined by evolution and instinct to be drawn to those men who can fend for them and future children; not the guy who is passive, weak, deferential, and unaccomplished. In part this is thought due to the prehistoric woman’s physical disadvantage in protecting herself and her children, as well as finding adequate food and shelter when the children were small. The bodily cost and vulnerability of pushing out the next generation is greater for the fair sex than for her mate. No wonder she has been programmed to attend to different things than he does.
  • Triumph Over Aging and Death: Men, in particular, try to keep proving they are strong and virile, the better to keep decrepitude and demise at bay.
  • To Give Yourself Purpose: Striving is compelling. Competition is one of the answers to the question of what to do with your life.
  • Distraction: Games are a way of entertaining oneself — pouring excitement into the vessel of passing time. The joy of the contest is well-known. The male’s achievement of public notice in winning a game, excelling at the guitar, or writing a best-seller is also like the peacock’s spread of his feathers during the mating season, giving him added allure.
  • The Perks of Victory: To the winner go the spoils: a gorgeous home, the latest technical innovation, attractive clothes, etc.
  • Enhanced Self-image: Who dislikes applause? Victory boosts your self-esteem. Only if you place high enough in the race, of course.


  • To Win Friends: Have you ever witnessed what happens when a third child joins two who are playing well together? One of them is frequently the loser in the game of attaining primacy. Feelings are hurt. The value of friends is also based on the survival instinct. Those ancestors who lived “solo” had a more limited chance of survival against aggressive animals, drought, injury, and famine. We observe such team participation in business, sports, defense of your country, and raising your family.
  • Tradition: Some of us carry on practices encouraged by our forebears. Responsibility to those caretakers and ancestors, as well as their encouragement, contributes to continuing a parent’s business, joining the military as did a father and grandfather, or simply playing touch football as was the family’s habit.
  • Personal Growth: One way to feel better about yourself is to meet a challenge. Overcoming insecurities is a kind of contest between you and your fears. Mother Nature is your fearsome opponent when climbing a mountain. There is no trophy for reaching the top, but your sense of achievement doesn’t require one.
  • Caring for Your Children: The offspring need food, clothes, education, and a safe neighborhood in which to live. Moreover, the kids represent your posterity if they seed the future with your genes by having little ones themselves.
  • To Defy the Appearance of Age: Well, we try, don’t we? In effect, we are competing with our younger selves. Our tools? Comb-overs, hair-pieces, hair styles, body-building, cosmetic surgery, and the like. Our duds attempt to disguise the increase of natural defects as the body declines. We even fool ourselves with names: the grandmother who requires that she be called “Nana,” not grandma, for example.* “All is vanity,” says Ecclesiastes.
  • The Race Against Time: Here is an opponent we cannot beat, yet we make the effort. Most of us do our best to cram as much “life” into the unforgiving minute as possible.

As I hope is evident, some of the motives instigating our yen for competition and achievement continue to work on us well beyond the point they are useful. Seventy-year-olds getting cosmetic surgery — really? Acceptance of the inevitable is not popular in the West. We listen to our genes and, as a result, buy the jeans 15-year-olds think are hot.

You might argue with the reasons I’ve given. There are certainly others and many of us try to fight our programming. Nonetheless, evolutionary psychology research points in the direction I’ve indicated. We have many motives and are often quite unaware of them. All that said, if you stay on the surface of things in your attempt to understand yourself, you will miss a lot. Most people do.

Inevitably, though not for everyone, competitive activities are scaled down; at least if we are paying a little attention to what the clock, our bodies, and the world are telling us. And yet, as Dylan Thomas declaimed, “do not go gentle into that good night.” Competition is almost inescapable even to the last.

Maureen O’Hara, the late Irish-American actress of the mid-twentieth century, said this about herself:

“There have been crushing disappointments. But when that happens, I say, ‘Find another hill to climb.’”

Good advice, even if the hill is a small one.

maureen-oharaMaureen O’Hara

*I am reminded by my wife that some “Nanas” do not want to be associated with their mother-in-laws. Thus, there will never be more than one “Grandma Stein” in my family, namely my late mother. 😉

The top image is Jose Luis Nunez bouldering in Ton Sai Beach, Krabi, Thailand. The picture was taken by Mr. Nunez. The second photo is of Anna Stoehr, AUS, competing in the Boulder Worldcup 2012. It is the work of Henning Schlottmann. Both images come from Wikimedia Commons.

Are You Happier Married?

Shoes-6-28-02-295x400The honeymoon always ends. Are the positive effects of marriage also temporary? Shawn Grover and John Helliwell (2014) would tell you otherwise.

These men studied large bodies of marital data over long periods of time. They believe that marriage buffers you against life stressors. Especially if  — a big if — your spouse is your best friend. Indeed, they state “those whose spouse or partner is also considered their best friend get almost twice as much additional life satisfaction from marriage or cohabitation as do others.”

Put in different words, marriage benefits don’t end when the honeymoon is over (although the high point of a marriage is immediate). Indeed, even if your spouse isn’t absolutely your closest companion, a permanent union provides significant aid with life’s problems, say the authors. Grover and Helliwell remind us of past research showing a U-shaped curve describing the life satisfaction experienced by adults.  There is a decline in well-being from early adulthood to a bottoming-out period in middle age (late 40s and 50s) before happiness rebounds later in life. That explains the U-shape. Grover and Helliwell conclude the greatest benefit of marital satisfaction occurs precisely at this most stressful time of life. The figure below shows the low point is much less dramatic for those living together than for single individuals.


This research is not without its critics, particularly those who note major differences in reported psychological marriage benefits (or their absence) depending on where in the world you live. Moreover, the large body of research on marriage and children suggests rearing a family to be challenging and stressful. Indeed, the differences of opinion on the value of the Grover/Halliwell study should be a reminder not to be too comfortable with media-driven reports of scientific breakthroughs, wonder drugs, etc., when only a single study is taken as evidence. Still, the Grover and Helliwell research is worth thinking about. If you do, some interesting tangential thoughts appear:

For example, given the decline in equanimity from one’s early adult life to middle age (in general), it is possible some married individuals in the midst of a natural decline will blame the partner. If so, a new “significant other” could bring only a temporary boost in fulfillment, followed by an eventual return to the same life-satisfaction slippage.

Work in the area of happiness also triggers the question, why might mid-life be so tough for us? A few thoughts:

  • Your body looks and feels different.
  • You’ve lived long enough to have some regrets.
  • Mortality is creeping up on you.
  • The demands of work, raising children (assuming you have them), and aging parents confront declining energy.

Past mid-life, the last item in the list should have resolved itself to some degree. With respect to the first three, one imagines you’ve had the time to adjust and come to terms with them once past middle-age.

Still, it is difficult to dismiss the benefits of having a life partner who is a best friend, although one shouldn’t rule out a selection of people who will be better off single, especially if they have a full and intimate social life and don’t want kids.

Subject to revision, I conclude the following:

  • Changing horses (excuse me — life partners) in mid-stream might not be the best idea for either sex.
  • The end of the honeymoon does not mark the end of marriage benefits, unless your marriage is a poor one.
  • If you are not as happy at 45 as you were at 25, welcome to mid-life and its pile-up of stresses!
  • That said, married or not, stick around — you are likely to rebound in a few more years.

A couple of other things to consider. The selection of a “best friend” in the early heat of a relationship isn’t high on our evolutionarily-produced brain’s to-do list. The machine in your skull is concerned with catapulting your genes into the generation ahead. Your happiness is beside the evolutionary point, except to the extent it might improve the survival of your offspring. Therefore, hunting for a trustworthy emotional and intellectual match is going to be your job, not necessarily the work of your ancient biological programming.

Finally, if friendship in marriage is important, it follows that one should reflect on one’s friendship history — your experience in intimate platonic relationships. If your track record of non-sexual confidants is weak, I suspect your chance of making a good lover/alter ego choice will be more complicated than if you easily retain closeness with others. Your inflamed passions — are there any other kind? — will steam your brain, reducing the ease of making a good friendship choice simultaneously with identifying a potential reproductive partner.

Why bother, you ask? Why not let nature take its course? At worst, by addressing your ability to make and keep buddies, you might improve your social support system. At best, you’ll prepare yourself to find the companion of a lifetime.

The research cited is: How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point, by Shawn Grover and John F. Helliwell. NBER working paper 20794, copyright 2014.

The cartoon, “Shoes,” is courtesy of Nick Galifianakis. His website is a delight: http://www.nickandzuzu.com. He has also published a wonderful book of his cartoons available there and elsewhere: