What makes us happy?

So Many Olympic Exertions
By Anelise Chen
232 pp. Kaya Press. $18.

What is the link between success and happiness? Can you have the latter without the former? 

Is a person’s own definition of success, like happiness, theirs alone? Or is there a roadmap that will help you get there? 

This is a small book that attempts to answer big questions. It’s yet another in that new genre of “auto fiction”, which is to say a fictional book by an author who seems to be writing about her own life and the events in it. Except that the author’s name is Anelise Chen, and the name of our protagonist is Athena Chen. (Athena … get it? Because this book deals with those age old philosophical questions famously popularized by the Ancient Greeks.)

Athena is a PhD student who can’t seem to make any progress on her dissertation and whose former lover has just committed suicide. This act causes her to look back over her life in an attempt to find meaning. 

What do any of us actually have to live for? Is there a reason to the madness, or is the madness all there is? 

These are questions that have received new attention in the digital age. Millennials, of which I am a fellow hopeless member, feel to me to be the least “sure” generation in, well, a while, anyway. I’m not sure. Technology has just amplified the uncertainty, as we have more information at our fingertips than any generation that came before us and yet we find ourselves less certain than ever about who we are or what we want. 

Chen zooms in on professional success as the answer, and examines the lives of athletes to give her insight into whether or not accomplished athletes are happier than the rest of us. 

I’m not a sports fan, but looking at the lives of various athletes and the things that make them different from us is fascinating. Chen, a former competitive swimming herself, also takes a look at what sports does to the rest of us. 

Really, why do any of us give a damn about sports? What is it about watching our football team win the World Cup, or the Super Bowl — depending on what football means to you — that’s so important to us? Why is it so important to us? This team, which we have nothing to do with really, wins a big game, and for some reason we care? For what reason? What role does that team play in our identity? 

Chen cites some interesting data about how supporters of winning teams have higher testosterone levels than supporters of losing teams, leading to higher levels of confidence, but she doesn’t touch on what I think the actual reason is, which is that we all want to be in a “group” or community of some kind, we all want to feel a connection to others and have a label by which we can identify ourselves, more for ourselves than for others, I think. 

There are some moments when I wish Chen would have gone further down a particular rabbit hole and many in which I wish she would have talked less about her own life and focused more on these issues. The two don’t always seem to align. 

I’m not sure that this book always flows well. There’s a lot of information, really fascinating information, but the links between it all feels tenuous. I was asked by someone who saw me reading this the other night what it’s about, and it was hard to sum it up in a single sentence. I don’t really know, and I’m not even sure Chen knows. Just when I think it’s about one thing it sort of transforms into “being” about something else. 

It is certainly entertaining though. Perhaps the part I liked best was Chen’s examination of willpower in sports. Why some athletes are better than others and how that often has far more to do with character traits than it does with actual skill.

Chen brings up the curious case of Andrea Jaeger, the professional tennis player who received criticism when it appeared that she threw some of her matches. Jaeger, it turns out, felt bad when she beat an opponent, particularly one who she felt really wanted to win. Jaegar cared too much about how others felt when they lost to her, more than she cared about actually winning herself. 

Jaegar’s is just one example of many that Chen cites in “So Many Olympic Exertions”. There are others that are equally fascinating. For example, the case of Maocyr Barbosa, Brazil’s goalkeeper during the 1950 World Cup. Brazil was largely expected to win that World Cup as it was being played in Brazil and Brazil, as always, was supposed to be really good.

Barbosa was the best goalkeeper in the country at the time, but he wasn’t in the final against Uruguay. The rival team won, and Barbosa was demonized. His “one goal”, Chen writes, “was to deflect the goals of others, and at this, he failed”. Much later, Barbosa lamented that the maximum penalty for crimes was 30 years imprisonment, and he’d been punished for more than 50. 

That made me sad … and angry. Like seriously, it’s a game — get the fuck over it, Brazil! 

But like I said, I’m not much of a sports fan. Perhaps I have low testosterone as a result. So it’s hard for me to understand the sort of emotion that athletes and, especially, fans get from a game. But we’ve all seen the consequences of such emotion. 

The cover, as you might notice, references Sisyphus and his eternal punishment of having to push a large boulder up a hill only to have to repeat the exercise when it rolls back down. Sisyphus, Chen writes, is the “ultimate lonely athlete”, but what might he have thought in that moment when he’d finally pushed the stone up to the summit, in that pause before it rolled back down again? Was he thinking about how he would push it better next time? Whether he would place his hands differently? Anything to try and perfect the effort, to try and make it feel new.

There is a disease Chen learns about called “déjà vécu” in which sufferers “feel as though everything has already happened”. Whether it’s a film, a sporting match, a book, a conversation, those with déjà vécu feel like they’ve seen it all, read it all, had it all before. “It seems there is no greater torture”, Chen writes, “then knowing how the story is going to end”. 

I can understand that, because that knowing leads, essentially, to boredom. And what is hell if not an eternal state of boredom? 

So success, and accordingly, happiness, is variety? Originality?

Perhaps. 

There are no answers here. Chen is as uncertain about it as we all are, but “So Many Olympic Exertions” certainly furthers the conversation.

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