Monday, July 20, 2009

Don't worry (about next year), be happy

Do expectations fuel feelings toward the local hockey team? Does the ascension of the Capitals to “Cup Contender” status over the past couple of seasons confer a sense of inevitability of hoisting the Cup that left some, if not many fans unhappy with the club when they didn’t this past year?

Were we happier when the Caps sucked?

We pondered these weighty matters (there being no hockey in these parts to speak of this week, now that the kids have gone home) while reading a blog in the New York Times entitled, aptly enough, “Happy Days.”

In it, Eric Weiner today looks at “lowered expectations” and why those rascally Danes are so damned happy (according to, and we kid you not, a “Eurobarometer Survey”). Weiner posits that the Danes might be happy because of a sense of lowered expectations and then leaps to a couple of studies of happiness, one of which was authored by University of Chicago sociologist, Yang Yang.

In “Social Inequalities in Happiness in the United States, 1972 to 2004: An Age-Period-Cohort Analysis (American Sociological Review; April 2008),” Professor Yang concludes that “with age comes happiness. That is, overall levels of happiness increase with age, net of other factors. This supports the ‘age as maturity’ hypothesis suggested by the role theory of aging. The age effects are strong and independent of the time period and cohort effects…”

We get happier as we age, even as other factors are considered.

What does this have to do with hockey, you ask? Well, glad you did. It seems that message boards and blogs – provinces of Capitals Nation that seem to have an edge in the best of times, and can be positively abusive in the worst of them – fairly teem with negative sentiment toward this player (Jeff Schultz) or that prospect (Anton Gustafsson), with invective hurled at management (why did McPhee sign –insert player name here-) or ownership.

And then we realize, it’s probably because those who post entries on message boards or who author blogs are younger than most sports fans. They haven’t hit their “happy age” yet.

They don’t remember the Caps going 8-134-5 in their first season (ok, it was 8-67-5… it just seemed worse, but we were young then). They don't remember the four-overtime games that the Caps lost in the playoffs (one to their nemesis of old, the Islanders, and one to their nemesis of the present, the Penguins). They don’t remember the more than five thousand – or was it five hundred – man games lost to injury in the 1998-1999 season that included no post-season. They have quickly forgotten (attention span apparently a product of age as well) the valley of suck that was the 2003-2004 to 2006-2007 era.

On the other hand, fans of a certain age and experience, like… well, yours truly… have seen it all, have seen their hopes and dreams shattered into a thousand shards like an Alex Ovechkin stick as he’s firing at an open net. We’ve seen our expectations driven back into our skulls like a railroad spike. We’ve been tortured by the scene – replayed endlessly – of Sidney Crosby kissing the Stanley Cup while Mike Green takes abuse on message boards and in blogs for his “less than expectations” playoff performance. With age has come acceptance, tolerance of the foibles of young men on thin blades of steel who, but for a bounce here or a deflection there, can hoist the Cup in victory or hoist a beer in anguish of defeat.

Caps Nation – or a substantial chunk of it – is the very embodiment of Weiner’s observation that “we’d rather stew in our misery than trim our expectations. Lowering our sights smacks us as a cop out, un-American. Better a nation of morose overachievers, we reason, than a land of happy slackers.”

Maybe we should be more like those Danes, who (as Weiner reports it) see happiness in low expectations met easily. Instead of ratcheting up our expectations from year to year (playoffs last year, a playoff round win this year, a Stanley Cup next year), we should enjoy what we achieve without thought of what we “expect” down the road. We can lower our expectations and be happy when they are met. In fact, I’ll do that right now…

The Caps will finish 2009-2010 with a better record than 8-67-5.

Ahh… I’m happy already.

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

-- President John F, Kennedy, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961

"That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

-- Neil Armstrong, Mission Commander, Apollo 11, 10:56 pm (EDT), July 20, 1969

Happy 40th anniversary.