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Friday, October 21, 2011

Competition, Like Chocolate, Must Be Right Type To Be Healthy

Ask the average person to describe the ideal retreat from everyday life, and she will depict a life that is stress free and non-competitive.  However, ask that same person to endure a month of living with no stress of any sort and no challenges, and that person will describe, at the end of that period, a life of boredom.  Our perfect oasis in life, then is not a safe, comfortable, unchallenging escape from the joys and distresses that constitute our lives.

One of the most banal beverages is water.  However, try to live without it!  A quarter of the world eats potatoes as a staple part of the diet, while three quarters eat rice.  Can you think of foods with less taste?  On the other hand, foods like lemon, tomatoes, dark fruits and green vegetables have sometimes harsh, other times vigorous tastes, yet we need them, in abundance, to ensure health.  The analogy is simple: vitality springs from contrast and challenge.

In life, our staple foods for emotional wellbeing are competition and stress.  Like red wine, too much can be harmful.  Like chocolate – dark versus milk – stress and competition, to be healthy, must be the correct type.  Competition, like stress, can produce positive benefits, or erode our wellbeing.

Psychologist David Lowenstein states that “healthy competition can help a child have more energy and spirit, it can stimulate better performance.”  At the same time, unhealthy competition can destroy self-esteem and decrease incentive to achieve.  Low self-esteem is one of the significant contributors to stress, as is loss of control over a situation. 

Competition, where a party to the challenge is subjected to feelings of inferiority is likely to result in long-term effects, as well.  Consider the child who is repeatedly placed in a sports environment that emphasizes winning over personal improvement.  The result often is an insecure child.

As we move through life, competition can take nasty turns.  The movie, Mean Girls, highlighted that nastiness.  Facebook has become a forum for vindictive sniping at peers in the adolescent and teenage world, and has led to numerous suicides at the hands of victims who feel denigrated because they did not “fit in.”  That type of competition is extremely detrimental.

But competition is more than an element of sports, or social pecking order for teens.  Again, look to the office setting.  In such environments, the competition to dress “to the nines” results in a stressful focus on clothes, makeup and posturing.  On the other hand, in the rural environment, such preening would be ostracized. In the work world, the competition for jobs leads to backbiting and underhanded strategies to tear down opponents.   The stress that results destroys marriages, creates huge debt crises and encourages distorted perceptions of that which is important in life.

The answer to how to segregate good stress from bad, healthy competition from unhealthy is simple: release the need to be competitive in areas over which you have little control, like appearance or fancy possessions.

However, eliminating all competitive urges leads to a society disinterested in challenges and self-betterment, while cooperative competition leads to self-improvement and awareness of the benefit of rising to the challenge of making the world a better place. 

Ask the average person, again, to describe their idyllic oasis in life, once they understand the void that eliminating all challenges and competition in their world will create, and he is likely to opt for an environment where he can choose how, where and when he competes, but is unlikely to opt for a mellow, milquetoast world of indifference.  Thus, our individual oasis in life is less about passivity and indolence, and more about enjoying and embracing the stimulation of life, on terms in which we are comfortable engaging those challenges.  In short, our oasis is a place where we have a measure of control over those stressors and challenges that we feel that we have a reasonable expectation of hurdling.  We want competition, deep within. 

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