Winning and losing: What can London 2012 tell us about ‘happiness’?

With the Paralympics promising to cheer us all up in the post-Olympic gloom, I consider what the successes and ‘failures’ of the Games – and the events as a whole – can tell us about being happier in our own lives

The Paralympics are just around the corner

The Paralympics are just around the corner

The London Olympics – is it just me, or do they already feel dismally distant? In the two weeks since the light quite literally went out on London 2012, the golden glow emanating from all us usually-grey, complaining Brits has faded almost as quickly as a tan on lightly-bronzed skin. But it’s OK, because in mere days, the Paralympics will arrive, and the joy will spread once more.

But this certainly poses the question: are humans are doomed to peaks of glory, in the pursuit of a goal – followed by a dismal trough of gloom once it’s all over, or we don’t get what we were after? Well, actually, no.

Admittedly, for two glorious weeks, Britons were pleasantly surprised. We were not, contrary to popular opinion, quite as rubbish as we thought. Traffic and public transport weren’t the carnage we’d been expecting, the weather (mainly) held out, Britain did damn well across the medals board, and the Opening Ceremony was a bonkers, ridiculous, fantastically-hilarious, toe-tapping conglomeration of the best of British. Twitter loved it. We all loved it.

Briefly, we experienced what it must be like to actually shake off the yoke of our usual, grumbling, bleakly-practical and self-deprecating state, and experience genuine, heartstring-pulling joy.

Yes, I found myself revelling in rhythmic gymnastics, welling up at running and drying my tears after dressage. I found myself laughing happily at the Mo Farah meme, and even reluctantly approving of the sell-out cosmetic ads from Pendleton and Ennis et al. despite their over-use of Photoshop on some of the officially most-honed bodies on the planet. And this, from someone who usually doesn’t give sport the time of day.

But since then, we’ve had more rain, more news on the deficit, separate cases of old men pontificating on young women’s bodies, massacre in the Middle East, titles being stripped, and the end of a legend. Despite every publication under the sun’s attempts at shoring up ‘Olympics withdrawal’, there’s no mistaking that the shine has gone. And, after the initial revival, when the Paralympics are also done and dusted, will that be the final story?

For those of us interested in a slightly happier state of affairs, is this the only thing we can learn from the Games? With the Paralympic Games just around the corner, and cheeky adverts from Channel 4 promising an even better show than the BBC extravaganza, are we destined for the same high and then perishing low of the previous set, only this time worse, because there are no more to come?

Are we destined to bounce between ‘fun event’ to ‘fun event’, but be miserable the rest of the time? Will we shuffle under our collective duvets, and, as winter encroaches, simply refuse to cheer up?

I hate to say it, especially at a time when Cameron and his sporty lot (tee hee) are pushing the competitive sport agenda ‒ with a flagrant disregard for those of us who saw PE mainly as a shivery, gossipy and ultimately pointless exercise in trying not to get in the way ‒ sometimes it really is just the taking part that counts.

While I obviously can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be an elite athlete, reframing your view of ‘failure’ is something that is useful in everyday life, even if it’s about something as trivial as not getting everything on your to-do list done that day, to something more major like not getting the grades you wanted, or that job you knew you were perfect for.

While London 2012 saw many tears of joy, some poor souls cried tears of disappointment instead. Athletes who gave it their all and didn’t do as well as they wanted, such as Dai Greene, who, after coming in as one of the ‘fastest losers’ in the 400m hurdles final, told BBC Sport that “I don’t know what happened…I’m devastated. I’m shocked and feel like I’ve let everyone down”. Especially poignant, when we all know what it’s like have felt we’ve done everything we can, and it still wasn’t good enough.

And yet, if we’re aiming for overall happiness, we’d do well to remember that it’s only through supposed ‘failure’ – in small doses, at least ‒ that you can learn. Success might be fabulous, but it takes a few knock-backs to keep you fighting; to allow you to step back and take stock, and calmly address the areas in which you fell down.

As many have said before me, failure is part of success. If you can approach ‘failure’ even-handedly, seeing it as simply an unfortunate event, rather than central to your being, you can step back and learn from it: not to mention that success tastes all the sweeter when you know how bleak failure can feel. And if you’re not afraid of failure, you can run at your idea of success all the more.

That’s not to argue for some horrifically hierarchical, winner-takes-it-all, survival-of-the-fittest and damn-the-rest approach. It’s more an even-handed resolution that failure need not herald the end of all things.

But the idea that focusing on goals over all else isn’t necessarily the secret of happiness seems fairly nonsensical at first. If you’re in it to win it, and you don’t win, surely that makes you a loser, right?

Well, not necessarily. Contrary to many ‘tenets’ of self-help and happiness, which say that having goals (and repeating them to yourself every day in front of the mirror, allowing no negative thoughts to creep in, for example) is the only way to move forward, certain theories suggest that actually, simply focusing on the present is more useful for everyday contentment.

For a start, being mindful of the inner monologue you have about yourself, that voice constantly chastising you for not doing as well as you should, allows you see that you are not your thoughts.

You might not be able to shut off that inner monologue telling you that you’re rubbish, but actually, with a little bit of practice, you can come to realise that you don’t HAVE to listen to that background noise. You can choose to ignore it.

Once you’ve squared the fact that failure doesn’t automatically equal despair, and that underneath it all, you’re still OK, and you’re still you – well, you’re free to pursue less destructive trains of thought. You can pick yourself up. You’ve haven’t let everyone down. Taking part is still pretty damn good. You can’t be the best at everything, but if you can please yourself, that’s half the battle.

In addition, as Oliver Burkeman highlights in his new book The Antidote, the problem with placing such a premium on positive ‘success’ is that you then unwittingly catastrophise failure. If you’re always chasing positive thoughts, and demonising the negative, you’re forcing yourself to be unnaturally happy, and creating a prison in which entirely natural, less-perky thoughts – perhaps the very ones which drove you towards self-help and ‘happiness’ theories in the first place ‒ come creeping back.

Actually, Burkeman argues, understanding that you don’t always have to be positive – you don’t always have to win ‒ is the key to longer-term contentment. And it’s like mindfulness guru Andy Puddicombe says: Behind the clouds, the mental blue sky is always there. No matter the weather in the way – it’s OK, because if you choose to see it, there’s always blue sky as well.

As Burkeman highlights, like Jules Evans, Alain de Botton and many others before them (to mention only the few I’ve read recently), Stoicism is one ancient philosophy that could also provide a solution ‒ albeit a arguably initially-depressing one ‒to problematic levels of anxiety, worry and feelings of failure.

Imagine the worst-case scenario, say the Stoics: it can always be worse. Disappointment ‒ such as losing a race you’ve dedicated your life to, hearing you didn’t get a job you’d set your heart on, or finally breaking up with someone you thought you’d truly believed you’d be with forever ‒ can always get worse.

This may sound unimaginably bleak and possibly not the best olive branch to offer to those feeling suicidal, say, but rather than simply a perverse exercise in making yourself feel even more rubbish, this viewpoint actually addresses your sense of perspective, and wakes you up to the fact that, no matter how crap you’re feeling, your current situation isn’t actually so bad. And once you’ve accepted that without despair, things could actually go better than you fear anyway.

We as a nation arguably embodied the benefits of this strategy when we expected the worst before the Games, and were then pleasantly surprised when they were better than we ever hoped.

The steadfast belief that should the worst happen, you’d actually be OK regardless, can also offer a cool dose of blessed relief for those hit by recent disappointment. The worst has happened, but really, if you’re honest, the world hasn’t ended.

Stoicism wincingly applies this dictum, perhaps harshly, to everything, including death and destitution. But, taken with a pinch of sugar perhaps, the concept does lend credence to the notion that happiness is found not only in the highs of unequivocal victory, but also in the general ups and downs of life.

Seeing things in this way means you need not place success on a pedestal. When success and failure are mere constructs of your own mind, you can approach your life even-handedly, and navigate potentially destructive highs and lows far more constructively.

As Mark Williamson, Director of the Action for Happiness movement discussed with me the other day (at this mindfulness talk by Ruby Wax, as it happens), nobody thinks that Dai Greene or Mark Cavendish are rubbish for not winning one race. Disappointing yes, but still OK. And everyone accepts that Sarah Attar, first female Saudi competitor ever, scored an unabashed victory despite finishing very much in last (43 seconds behind the winner, to be precise).

Yes, Britain, and our athletes, momentarily succumbed to the tempting glory of unabated joy. Nothing wrong with that. We all did so well, whether we were running the races, showing people to their seats, taking a different train to work, or cheering them on from our sofas. Paralympic ticket sales have soared; we’re clearly gearing up for another two weeks of ‘win’.

But it’s worth remembering that, when it finally leaves, when the sun finally sets on the wonderful London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games that we never dared hope for, actually, we’ll all be OK.

For those who did well; absolutely incredible. You were wonderful. You gave us all hope.

But for those who did less well, or those mourning the end of the entire event, remember that generally, conceding ‘success’ doesn’t mean accepting ‘failure’. It can provide space, self-acceptance and self-awareness. It can mark a new starting point at which we can take stock, and, if we want, begin again, this time perhaps more even-handed, prepared and content, than before.

Because even if you accept that you are not your thoughts, things can always get worse. And paradoxically, that can be a gloriously good thing.

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