The optimistic spin on this research is that we adapt to bad stuff too. Long and painful slogs are rarely as long or painful as we imagine. Further, research has shown that adversity really does make us stronger. People who had gone through significant negative life events — bereavement, illness, a fire — later reported better mental health than those who hadn’t.
In many ways, then, the brain’s capacity to withstand sorrow benefited Cubs fans. The championship drought bred in them an adaptive resilience to the day-in, day-out disappointment that afflicts almost all baseball fans, 97 percent of whose teams won’t win any given World Series. It allowed them to savor for decades the imaginative pleasure of a future title. It prompted them to reframe the franchise’s struggles as a source of pride, a rallying point for a community of tested partisans. It was, one might even say, pretty good, even if hedonically unfulfilling.
Yes, the premise of this story is a cheap trope. “Something is lost or not quite the same,” USA Today worried on behalf of Red Sox fans after 2004, and writers and fans have managed to stay unsettled by the fallout of that victory ever since. The decade after 2004 — two more championships, the astoundingly pleasurable career of David Ortiz, waves of young talent, Fenway’s sellout streak — were fretted over. “True” fans created barriers to late entry, dismissing bandwagoners with the sexist “pink hats” slur. The subsequent victories didn’t seem as sweet, and even defeats left fans emptier than they used to. The franchise got bogged down by bad contracts and drama, the story goes, and like the pigs in Animal Farm, it began to resemble the Yankees after all.
But if the point of baseball is to bring us as much happiness as possible (and what else could it possibly be?), this is at least a cheap trope worth engaging. Over the past 50 years, research into well-being has revealed the unsettling fact that we are awful at predicting what will make us happier. Marriage doesn’t, kids don’t, higher income doesn’t, BMWs don’t. Winning the lottery does … for a few weeks. Then the winners of particularly large sums actually end up … unhappier.
We can accept this science while rejecting its bleakness. Being born into Cubs fandom was a miracle for which every Wrigleyville streetlight climber should be justifiably grateful. But the hard work to lasting happiness is just beginning in Chicago.