Competition: A Pandora's Box for Both Stress and Happiness


A thousand solemn ninth-graders stood nervously outside the examination hall, refusing even to speak to their rivals. I could feel my heart pounding, my breath was ragged, and I was sweaty from the nerves.

It was Zhongkao day for Chinese students. Our results on the exam would determine what high school we would be admitted to. While excited for the exam as a path to higher education, we were, at the same time, almost overwhelmed with stress. Each mistake we made would lower our ranking by thousands of places, greatly affecting the course of our lives. I couldn't help but wonder if this academic competition was beneficial for our wellbeing and long-term development, whether competition in general is a source of happiness or stress for participants. In fact, the effect of competition on one's mental wellbeing—stressful or enjoyable—is primarily decided by cultural expectations and individual characteristics.

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Depending on how people in a society view its significance, competition can be an enjoyable process in which every participant gets motivated and improves. This is when people are intrinsically motivated. Extrinsically motivated people, on the other hand, view competition as a dreary, aggressive fight between individuals who just want to beat one another as rivals for more social resources.

Studying the influence of cultural expectations on one's perception of competition, Márta Fülöp, psychology Ph.D. from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, reports that the "fast transition going on in Hungary society [from post-communist state to market economy]" requires citizens to change their understanding of competition to more of a Social Darwinist point of view. According to Fülöp's research, most of the Hungarian respondents perceive competition as a cruel selection process in which every participant is supposed to out-compete the "rest of the world" in order to grab critically limited resources. Personally, I see eye to eye with Dr. Fülöp. Back in China, where the societal situation is quite like that of Hungary, competition permeates the education system. My friend at school once confided to me that it was mostly the peer pressure from other well-qualified competitors that forced him to study harder and harder, to gain admission to high school.

As Fischer argues in "Competition and Wellbeing", extrinsically motivated competitors tend to equate happiness with achieving greater "bargaining power," "higher [social, economic, or academic] status" than others inside a community. A burst of pleasure, for extrinsically-motivated individuals, arrives when they win the competition, "beating" their "rivals" successfully. However, this wild joy can be short-lived, and quickly replaced with new anxiety. This could stem from the fact that competition never stops: maintaining relative status could be stressful for those "winners" in the long-run. Even worse, extrinsically motivated competitors who lose the rivalry are much more likely to report negative emotions and states, like depression and sadness, which prevent one from performing well later on. Personally, watching my friends break down crying in the middle of school, unable to cope with the anxiety and sharing dark thoughts after a bad examination, I grow increasingly aware that extrinsic motivation in a hyper-competitive environment leads to Social-Darwinist points of view, a more stressful life, and little happiness.

In sharp contrast, people living in a resource-rich environment that emphasizes cooperation and interdependence of individuals for the collective good tend to view competition as more of a motivation, a stimulus for self-improvement, instead of a win-or-lose situation. With less societal pressure on individuals to strive hard to be the best in one specific dimension—usually academic performance in our day and age—people tend to firmly believe that they have a wide range of talents and merits, most of which are incomparable with one another across individuals. Aware that everyone is born to be different, people focus more on their personal growth and development, instead of forcing all different shapes into the same-sized holes. Moreover, people consider development a process instead of a result. Exams or contests are viewed as a means to test one's current capacity, not a tool to statistically rank thousands of qualified competitors. Therefore, people generally grow much less stressed regarding competitions.

Indicated by Márta Fülöp's experiment, intrinsically motivated competitors generally feel happier when they have met a goal of progress set by themselves. This could be explained by Aristotle's psycho-philosophy that happiness is the by-product of achieving life goals: "happiness derives from self-actualization, personal development, and growth on civic virtue." If individuals, after working hard, have made a significant improvement in their personal merits and skills, meeting the preset goals, they cannot help but feel accomplished and satisfied with themselves, which could be beneficial in terms of inspiring them to keep up the good work.

However, when intrinsically-motivated individuals do not meet their goals, they react differently, with personal characteristics playing the deciding role. According to Dr. Márta Fülöp's control experiment, optimistic competitors "extend their focus" from "failing to meet the preset goals" to the substantial progress they have already achieved. After initial disappointment, optimistic people start to appreciate the competitive environment as a stimulus for them to make these solid improvements faster. In contrast, people with a pessimistic point of view keep themselves immersed in the frustration of not meeting their objectives, deducing that their previous hard work is mostly fruitless. In this case, competition, especially the failure to meet one's objectives, creates a considerable amount of negative feelings, including self-negation, fatalistic thoughts, and stress.

There is no definite conclusion regarding the relationship between competition and emotional state. Competition may promote happiness among optimistic and intrinsically motivated people, but still create extra stress for pessimistic and intrinsically-motivated people. Meanwhile, extrinsically-motivated competitors rarely derive improvement to their overall wellbeing. One could refine competition policies, but there would always be a part of the population negatively affected by the changes. According to the public policy analysis journal Culture, Competition, and Happiness, policy analysts should ensure the fairness of rules—no one should gain an unfair advantage over others—and clarify the evaluation criteria to all candidates. With transparent evaluation, genuine competitors who win without cheating can have their feeling of sheer delight without others' skepticism. With mutual respect, "winners" would grow more "empathetic" towards people who lose the game; likewise, the latter would also acknowledge the others' better performance. In this way, a healthier dynamic could form among competitors than under an unfair evaluating process.

As the end-of-exam bell rang, the three-day-long torment was finally over. Having scored higher than expected, I smiled brightly when I received an acceptance letter from my dream school. But some of my best friends who were better qualified than I did not perform well under the hyper-competitive environment, crushed under the invisible pressure. I sincerely wish that the admissions committee, as well as the general public, would review studying from a continuous perspective, spreading the “make-or-break” exam into daily progressive assessments. No single exam would be the deciding factor, but together they would accurately reflect our academic performances, which would encourage more students to study in an intrinsically-motivated way.


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Stucke, M. (2013). Should Competition Policy Promote Happiness?. Fordham Law Review, 81, 2576-2654.

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Botao Ju is a 17-year-old from Beijing, China. He enjoys reading, writing, cycling, rowing, and holding club seminars.