The Pursuit of Happiness

We’re a happy team at Hawthorn… (Opening line of Hawthorn theme song)

What do we do now, now that we’re happy? (Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett)

We should be wary of pursuing happiness as the main goal of our life, not only because happiness is one of the more elusive and unpredictable of emotions, but also because so many people report that their most valuable experiences of emotional growth and personal development have come from pain, not pleasure.  And, to further complicate the picture, isn’t there a kind of sweetness about some forms of pain and sadness? (The Good Life by Hugh Mackay)

My self-imposed exile from The Footy Almanac has resulted from one of those full-on stints of “real life” involving ageing family, upheaval, illness and death.  These times teach you a lot about yourself and others, but it’s pretty hard to read or write about sport, or any other trivial subject, for that matter.

However, time heals and brings perspective.  As I tentatively dip my toe back in the water, I’ve concluded that maybe the light-weight subject of sport can help us understand some of life’s deeper issues.

In his book, The Good Life, Hugh Mackay ventures from his stock in trade of social research into the realm of philosophy.  He explores the concept of a “Good Life”, which he characterises by selflessness and a willingness to connect meaningfully with others.   I’m not entirely convinced by Mackay’s argument about what a “Good Life” is. But I absolutely support what he says it isn’t – namely the delusional obsession with achieving “happiness” through a mix of material consumption, shallow distractions and pastimes, and shielding ourselves and our loved ones from anything that might trigger “negative” emotions.

With the new AFL season just days away, let’s consider the motivations of the hundreds of thousands of us who have signed up for club membership.

The modern marketing “pitch” of most professional sporting clubs (and AFL clubs are no exception) pushes the “happiness” line pretty hard.  Generally, it goes something like this: “Join us and you will enjoy a constant stream of excitement and entertainment”.  Winning is, of course, implied, though never guaranteed. Losing is never mentioned as part of the deal.  They use words like “commitment” and “passion” but only in the sense that you will be committed or passionate enough to part with your hard-earned, not that you will commit to enduring the whole experience, including the bad stuff.  After all, once the club’s got your money, they don’t care much if you turn up or not.

In short, the compact is a false promise by the club of the sort of bland, constant happiness that Mackay warns us about and a highly conditional pledge of loyalty on the part of the supporter.

Mackay also makes much of the futility of chasing happiness by acquiring impressive “stuff”.  And behold, our new members’ commitment is duly honoured by a whole pile of boastful merchandise – lanyards, scarves and a bumper sticker for the Audi – through which supporters can demonstrate the strength of their support. (These material reminders of your allegiance also get you off the hook from actually attending if the weather’s too crap or the team is struggling.)

If Mackay’s thesis is correct, this hardly seems a sustainable strategy for developing a solid fan base.  We can reasonably conclude that a sizeable proportion of supporters who sign up in response to these anodyne marketing campaigns will simply treat footy as a form of optional entertainment to be enjoyed for as long as their team continues to deliver safe and stable “happiness”, preferably in the form of regular Premierships, or at least regular wins.  If this doesn’t happen, they will, in true 21st century fashion, be unwilling to confront the disappointment or to commit for the long haul and will likely flee to other less risky forms of entertainment.

The AFL is fortunate that it has thousands of rusted-on fans who sign up irrespective of marketing campaigns that don’t tell even half the truth about the emotional ride that they are asking us to board. So to return to the “happiness” argument, why do these supporters still willingly subject ourselves to an experience which they know, for 17/18ths of them at least, will ultimately result in disappointment?

Let me try to explain by referring to Richmond’s game against GWS in July last year.  This one won’t appear in too many highlight packages or Foxtel re-runs of classic matches.  The dour standard of the game matched the shitfully bleak day.  The Tigers eventually overcame their plucky opponents to scrounge a narrow and somewhat fortuitous victory.

The game produced various emotions among all who witnessed it.  Happiness was not among them.  For the Richmond cohort, it was relief mainly, that another afternoon on our unique pleasure-pain rollercoaster had ended positively.  For the handful of Giants fans, the optimism at seeing the further development of their young team would have been muted by their disappointing final quarter fadeout.

Overshadowing all was the sombre pall cast over the AFL that weekend by the death of Phil Walsh.  As the players formed a circle of honour for Walsh at game’s end, the usual emotions triggered by the result were washed away, at the very point where they are usually at their most intense.  We shuffled quietly out of the MCG, reflecting on how football can mean so much more than the final score.

Perhaps perversely, that day lingers in my memory as a high point of the season.  I and a couple of my regular footy buddies spontaneously decided to adjourn to the Corner Hotel post-game for a reviving ale or two.  Consciously at least, we simply wanted to thaw out.  But I think there was an unspoken desire among us to try and make sense of what we’d just witnessed.

Circulation restored and the tensions and frustrations of the game subsiding, we relaxed with an hour or so of random banter. We moved from the obvious acknowledgment of Walsh to our default trench humour about the tribulations of supporting Richmond.  Earnest speculation about the implications of today’s performance butted up against rueful laughter about similar scrappy displays that hadn’t always ended as successfully, and listing of our litany of past draft howlers.  Placing the day’s events within the richer perspective of team history and our experience – as supporters, rather than mere consumers.

Supporting a team rarely delivers pure happiness in a simple package.    What the marketing hype doesn’t teach you is that the essential satisfaction of being a footy supporter is captured in days like this.  In the actions of turning up, whatever the conditions, watching and agonising through every moment, no matter how tough and unedifying the spectacle.  Sharing the emotional highs and lows in the company of others who understand the contextual significance of the game rather than merely regarding it as another pleasant two hour distraction. And somehow piecing these learnings together into your broader life experience.

So as we embark on the 2016 season, let’s all try and embrace the footy at this deeper level.  By all means let’s exult in the spectacular moments and the glorious victories.  But above all, let’s think about what it teaches us about life, including, and perhaps, especially, the sweet sadness that is its ultimate life lesson – at least most seasons.

About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Neil Anderson says

    You can have your Hugh McKays and other social researchers, Chrissie Amphlett from the Divynals summed it up as good as anyone:
    ” It’s a fine line between pleasure and pain”.
    Happiness for Bulldog supporters occurs briefly during that brief interlude after a victory against a top side and before we start worrying about the next match against a much lower side. Only that elusive premiership will show the happiness graph going north.
    The Hawthorn supporters’ happiness graph is almost a constant flat-line with the occasional dip if they lose a final. I suppose their idea of pain would be not to equal the four premierships in a row record.

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Have missed your thoughtful musings and analysis on FA. It is about more than winning and premierships. For me it is about relationships – family – close friends – colleagues – acquaintances – People that make watching and going to the footy more meaningful because you share it with them.

    I reached my nadir as a fan in 2014 – Essendon saga – Expansion clubs – General mistreatment of fans by the AFL had me thinking I’m done with this caper.

    Last year my daughter and Jamie Elliott lit the spark again after the North match where we won coming from 39 points down. There was something real and childlike about the jubilation of watching a footballer who is capable of anything dragging his team over the line and sharing the moment with my child. “That was the day you started loving footy again dad.” she says now. Wouldn’t have been the same had I witnessed it with anyone else.

    Your writing never fails to get me to reflect. Welcome back Tetley

  3. jan courtin says

    When putting ourselves, or perhaps allowing ourselves to experience the extreme highs and lows of winning and losing, it is really no different to other addictions. We get to a point when we almost crave those highs and lows! (of course, I’m talking of the hard-core life-long tragics).
    As with everything in life, it’s a matter of finding a balance.
    Thanks for the article.

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