Does America Have a “Winning” Problem?

Survival of the fittest. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Second place is the first loser. These idiomatic expressions are so ingrained in the American culture that they have become clichés. But that doesn’t mean that the ideas behind these expressions have become obsolete. In fact, the opposite seems to be true.

Winning versus losing is instilled early, through youth sports and playground games. And it’s not to say that some competition isn’t healthy, but somewhere along the way, motivation turned into obsession.

In his book Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, Francesco Duina cites a World Values Survey showing that Americans value competition without reservations at 29%, with an overall favorable view of competition coming in at 46%. While these numbers may seem relatively small, they are much higher than any other industrialized nation. But one aspect that Duina hits on is especially telling—that Americans also believe in the fairness of unequal outcomes, meaning that people who “win” are deserving, and that’s just too bad for the “losers.”

Seven years after Duina’s book was published, the urgency of classifying winners versus losers has seemed to increase to a fervor we haven’t previously seen.

Taking sports alone, somewhere around $4.7 billion was wagered over the Super Bowl this year, and experts estimate that $93 billion is wagered illegally on football alone throughout the year. This is a tremendous amount of time spent on winning and losing.

Winning is an outcome, and the focus extends well beyond sports to wars and to business to social media. People size each other up to see who has what, who is better at what, and who has more of what, whether it’s a larger office, more clients, or more followers. People who are obsessed with winning seek only to achieve winning as an outcome, rather than to benefit from the whole experience or interaction.

When winning becomes an obsession for people, they see their own value and worth only in terms of that end goal, that prize. There is a transition from “proving yourself” to “proving you are better than anyone else,” and from there, it’s not a small jump to saying, “you are better than all those losers.” It indeed becomes a power struggle. And the power of winning can become as addictive as a drug. The pressure mounts to repeat the victories, to hold the title of “best.” And then a whole life is spent looking back over the shoulder in order to stay ahead of the competition.

Furthermore, when we begin to classify people as “losers,” we are immediately devaluing them, in their sport, their endeavor, their business, but also as human beings. It’s a way to separate out groups, to make a section of “others,” the have-nots. For those who lump themselves with the “winning” group, there is a tendency toward self-absorption and downright selfishness. This can extend to all-out narcissism. Too bad for them, let them eat cake—these glib sayings reflect that extreme self-absorption.

Lately, we see a trend toward people assuming if people aren’t on the winning side, then they have probably gotten what they deserve. Somewhere along the line, the old Protestant ethic of work hard and be rewarded came to mean that anyone who experiences a setback or a loss must not have worked hard enough. This assumes that all people have the benefits of starting at the same line, and that those who have succeeded must have earned their way there, must be more deserving than others. We know there are many factors that lead to successes as well as setbacks and that the starting line isn’t set equally for everyone.

Additionally, many statistical findings reveal that winning doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. Oftentimes, there is more stress to be had when the sole goal is to win. Classifying others as losers leads to resentment, to defensiveness, and at times, even a sense of paranoia that at any moment someone from the loser group will come to snatch what has been won. This way of thinking is the opposite of empathy. It’s the opposite of team spirit. It is isolating.

Most studies show that children who learn to cooperate rather than compete have higher success rates as well as happiness. They learn to work together to achieve a goal that is mutually-beneficial to the group. If the focus is too much on winning, children can be exposed to additional pressure, embarrassment if they lose, and loss of self-esteem.

So while competition can be both fun and constructive, far too often it becomes a zero-sum race that leads to dissatisfaction, stress, and a dismantling of the empathy that leads people to care about others and create bonds, which goes much farther than winning to increase happiness.