Is football sustainable well-being consumption in action?

OK, so I confess I am not particularly interested in football and I’m far more Celtic these days than English. But football (or any mass spectator sport) as a joyful, sociable, meaningful ‘consumable’ has got to make us stop and think – even out here on the Celtic fringes!

Rishi Sunak on the BBC 4 ‘Today’ programme yesterday repeated his regular mantra that the UK is a ‘consumption-based economy’ and that the economy must keep growing. (Although Rishi never explains that it’s the particular demand of a capitalist system that the economy must keep growing). In our UK case, that means our consumption levels must keep growing. People must keep buying more goods (regardless of whether they need them) or our economy will stagnate. This also means new jobs must be created which manufacture more stuff or consumers won’t have the necessary employment income to buy the new stuff created and keep the cycle going.

There are hugely damaging aspects of this cycle which our government either doesn’t recognise or maybe can’t or won’t publically acknowledge. Creating jobs for the sole purpose of making more material products: (i) uses up ever more of the planet’s finite resources, (ii) demands ever more energy to do so, (iii) generates ever more waste and (iv) doesn’t even deliver happier, healthier people or improve wealth disparity across society! In fact, our current economy is delivering the reverse in terms of happiness, fulfilment and reducing poverty. There is now plenty of evidence to show that. Simply switching to “greener” products and processes doesn’t fundamentally change this.

But I wonder if the current football euphoria shows us there are alternatives. Studies which The Prospectory (along with many others) have done over the years show that, once our basic needs for shelter, food and health are met, humans have 3 fundamental needs to enjoy happy, meaningful and fulfilled lives.

Stimulation – the buzz we get from novelty, drama, physical sensations or mental or emotional stimulation

Social bonding – the buzz we get from connecting with other people – particularly when we share common experiences, ideas or emotions. We want to feel we belong.

Identity/self worth – the buzz we get from a chance to express our own ideas, identity, skills, creativity and feel that we are valued and have worth.

We explored the consumer psychology of rugby supporters. Analysing their language in talking about their love of the sport showed that the buzz they got came from a complelling combination of these three.

Experiences such as we are currently witnessing with the England football games deliver the feel good hormones (seratonin, adrenaline, oxytocin) into our systems. They enhance our well-being (both physically and mentally) having stimulated us, made us feel fully alive and bonded with others (even those we might not know or have conflicting views with!) and strengthened our feeling of identity and self worth – even though we weren’t the ones performing skilfully on the pitch. If lucky enough to be in the stadium, then we can feel we were the ones who made the critical difference. Indeed, Andy Murray readily acknowledged this by gifting his shirt to a couple of loudly shouting supporters on the front row after a dramatic win at Wimbledon last week.

So, there are consumer experiences which deliver well being and without directly or necessarily consuming more of the world’s diminishing material resources or requiring huge amounts of energy. Sport is just one of many.

If true, and they can deliver such an experience to millions at once by running around a stretch of grass with a ball for 90 minutes, then just maybe those football players are actually worth the ridiculous money we pay them! (Although obviously it would help if the millions they earn was ploughed back into enabling the many to enjoy their own physical or creative activity.)

And back to Rishi Sunak. I have no idea if he is actually a keen football supporter but, in his role as Chancellor, it’s likely his interest is in football success making people happier as happy people will go out and spend their money and buy more stuff. Well Rishi, how about creating a world where everyone’s basic material needs are met and everyone is enabled to enjoy drama, happiness, meaningful activity and social bonding. When you are fed, warm and feel that happy and excited and are busy singing, laughing and hugging people, what else do you want or need?

How could an economy based on delivering happiness and meaning through human activity using only our combined human energy, skill and creativity work? It would be much better for us as humans (whether we are doing it ourselves or enjoying experiencing the activity of others) and might even save the planet.

About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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