Sports are one of the most popular activities for human connection. Millions—or even billions—will watch the most famous games in the world, such as the Super Bowl or World Cup. Yet, when you break it down, people are literally just watching a bunch of people run around a field trying to get a ball across a line or in a net. If there were objective meaning in the universe, it wouldn’t qualify. “We crossed the line more than our opponents did! We’re the greatest!” An alien species that didn’t focus on physical prowess would probably wonder what was going on and why anyone was doing any of it—let alone revolving their schedule around observing it.
But we don’t live in a world with objective meaning since intent, purpose, and significance require a living organism with those capabilities, such as a microorganism with the ability to sense its environment and move toward nutrients or a human able to ponder the meaning of the universe. But the universal purpose of all living organisms is to grow; every living organism is created (e.g., cell division, sexual reproduction), grows its mature state (e.g., adulthood), and then reproduces itself into the next generation of organism before it dies. As such, life has evolved to “play” or engage in physical activities that increase fitness (hence, “survival of the fittest” in Darwinian terms). By increasing its fitness, it maximizes its probability of reproduction.
These activities increase as life forms become social creatures. Animals that cooperate are more likely to survive than those who go it alone, so social creatures such as herd animals or pack animals evolved to work together for their group’s survival. Part of those survival procedures involve competition amongst each other, from locking horns to establish dominance to chasing easier prey as practice for more dangerous situations. The most famous example for animals is the canine game “fetch” of a human throwing a ball for a dog to retrieve it. This is honing the skills of the dog to hunt and also enhances communication between the dog and the dog owner. While this game has no direct value to survival such as resulting in immediate food, water, shelter, sex, protection, or health improvement (note: remember that exercise breaks down muscles, etc. and the subsequent rest is what improves the fitness), it leads to the ability to attain those results later.
In humans, the two main forms of this kind of behavior are exercise and sports—exercise being any repeated activity for the sole purpose of increasing fitness, and sports being a competitive activity with winners and losers at attaining a goal such as a higher score than the opposing team. Similar to fetch and other social behaviors in animals, the main point is to develop skills and fitness in a safer way so that a person is prepared in case of an emergency.
The most famous reason in historic times was to prepare a tribe for war. Obviously, you can’t practice for war through war or everyone would be injured or killed. So instead you practice through organized team activities and then compete through sports so that if and when war comes, you’re group is the most prepared. The tribes that practiced through these means were more effective in war and, therefore, carried on their community’s genes. This was even more enhanced in ancient times because the most fit males of the group would also get the majority of mating opportunities with the females, leading to entire generations of people with similar genes to the ones that made the fittest successful.
Of course, as humans have evolved into civilized societies, the sports we know today have separated from war preparation. Wars are fought with guns now, so being able to throw a football or run fast no longer translates directly into throwing spears and having melee combat stamina—now, military preparation is more about guns, missiles, and vehicles. Yet sports are still extremely popular, so what causes this? Is it just an advanced form of fetch on display or something greater?
Clearly, it’s something greater. Sports evolved into something much greater than practice for battle. It has become a social activity, it increase social bonds, it is part of human growth and development into mature adults, and it has an entertainment factor. It has become so significant to people that they will watch every game of a team they love, cry when they lose, and spend a small fortune on memorabilia. So what is this significance, and what’s causing it?
First, we have to recap the eight drivers of meaning in someone’s life and how sports involve them:
As you can see, when you look at what drives meaning and purpose in life, sports satisfy all of them. You have to be highly skilled to win, requiring monumental growth. The experiences are significant in terms of the consequences leading to championships or geographic-based bragging rights. The athletes need to want and believe in their success—as do the fans to show up and fund the events. Some people say that there is no greater feeling than winning (just ask Charlie Sheen). Whether a competition was won ethically will make or break whether people place significance on it (see: home run record, for example). Team sports fuel cooperation and social bonds, as does watching the sport together rally people to a common cause. And the choice to pursue excellence is one of the greatest choices that any person can make for their meaning in life.
So sports can really tell you a lot about what matters in life—even though through a seemingly objective lens there aren’t real life consequences to the game that is being played and watched by many, many people. It’s not about the exact activities happening on the field or the direct real-world consequences of the final score. It’s about the fact that we as humans like to celebrate growth, and excellence in athletic performance is one of the greatest examples of growth that you can not only visibly see but also that you can be entertained by watching. After all, no one live streams a scientist running a hundred experiments to discover something new in physics, chemistry, astronomy, or psychology. But watching a game can be a thrilling experience when the best are competing against one another and putting their extraordinary capabilities on display for all to appreciate.
So if you are a nihilist and think that nothing matters in life, you should visit your local stadium or bar and watch people go through the extremes of emotion as they watch their favorite team play a game. It’s not the meaning that intrinsically exists but rather the meaning that the people involved assign to it that makes it special. And the reasons are clear: they are the same reasons that make life purposeful, significant, and worth doing intentionally.