“He who knows no hardships will know no hardihood. He who faces no calamity will need no courage. Mysterious though it is, the characteristics in human nature which we love best grow in a soil with a strong mixture of troubles.” – Harry Emerson Fosdick, Pastor, 1878-1969
It seems the more I learn about how Testosterone works with the physiology and psyche of a man, the more I have come to realize that so many of the problems men deal with in the modern age (weight gain, erectile dysfunction, man-boobs) can be traced to the simple fact that we are doing everything wrong. That didn’t come across as the uplifting opener I had in mind for this article, but it seems to be spot on. The things that naturally boost our testosterone — red meat, hard work, sunlight, camaraderie with other men, the things we used to do as part of living — have become scarce and hard to maintain without some dedicated effort. Thankfully — here comes that positive spin — science is beginning to produce some hard evidence for many things men have intuitively known were missing from our docilitary life but didn’t really know how to pinpoint. Specifically, that men who win get a boost in their man juice (Testosterone) while losers are denied that most palliative elixir of manliness.
T is for Winners
It should be well-known to you, as a man, that Testosterone is your friend. It helps you gain muscle, heal wounds, fight colds, strengthen bones, and, eh hem…pitch a tent. It also helps with clarity of thought, fighting mental fatigue, focusing you and giving you a sense of urgency to life that you would not otherwise have. A lot of guys are walking around thinking it is normal to feel like crap all day. After all, this is why God invented espresso, right? Espresso is great and all, but that frothy brew is not the pluck-inducing fluid that makes our motors run smoothly. For that we need a hearty production of Testosterone.
Competition, Winning, Losing, and T-Levels
As it turns out, the natural competitive nature of men and boys, much of which is discouraged in a society which desires to turn out people of equality rather than excellence, is one of the main ways we keep our T-levels elevated. This has been well-known for some time, but more recent studies have begun to evaluate the T-levels of winners and losers in various competitive sports and games, from soccer to chess. In every study the T-levels of the men who win the competition are higher after said match is won while the losers testosterone declines. What is interesting is that both men’s testosterone levels are elevated prior to the match. Also, the loser’s T-levels drop in proportion to his attitude and how “devastating” the defeat was (more on that below).
In a 2013 article by Wired, stock-market trader turned neuroscientists John Coates provides some interesting insight into hormones (particularly Cortisol and Testosterone) and competition. Here is a snippet:
“When two animals square off in anticipation of a fight, they experience a rise in testosterone levels. … In the aftermath, winners can emerge with a tenfold increase in the amount of testosterone circulating in their bodies, whereas losers’ testosterone levels can be suppressed by the same order of magnitude. … This doping effect can sometimes last for months.” – John Coates, Neuroscientist
He goes on to say that the spike in T-levels of the victor causes something of a mild but addictive euphoria that spurs men on towards more competition and more victories.
Personal Victories Boost Testosterone
A 1989 study involving six tennis players showed that the winners, especially those who had very high evaluations of their victories, had consistently elevated T-levels while the losers, also on par with their view on their defeat, had consistently lower. The winners consequently went into the next match with elevated Testosterone (a decisive advantage) while the losers had less.
I would also like to point out that in 1989, America – and the world for that matter – was coming off of 2 terms of the Ronald Reagan presidency, which undoubtedly increased the testicular diameter of every red-blooded American male, thus flooding our systems with a preponderance of this masculine solvent. For a week after Reagan told Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!”, American males could use their own urine in place of WD-40. True story.
Similar studies have been done since that time evaluating men in any number of competitive arenas and have found similar results. Many of us have seen this with men who seem to be strangely over-competitive in the job market, working long hours and climbing the corporate ladder. It may be that those guys are getting a T-level boost in their system with each higher rung; a boost they aren’t getting in any other area of life.
So then, what is our goal as men? Do we strive to win at all cost so that we too can get our T-levels to spike? No, because the stress which comes with that sort of mindset actually wears down the body and decreases Testosterone. I believe it means we should seek competition rather than shying away from it, afraid of failure. We should enjoy a good fight and first and foremost be competitive with ourselves.
The Victories and Losses of the Men We Follow Affect our Testosterone
Another study in 1998 evaluated men and their T-levels based on their association with sports teams and weather the teams won or lost. As you might expect, the fans of the winning teams had elevated Testosterone while those of the losing teams dipped. I believe this has something to do with The Gang idea that Jack Donovan speaks about. We instinctively respond to the actions of the gang we associate with. When our team loses, we take it personally.
Now, think about this in broader terms and its implications. Do we associate ourselves with, say, our political leaders? If so, being that they have had dismal approval rates over the last several administrations, how would that affect our team-minded Testosterone levels? Might we experience a drop when we find out about another political scandal? How about our pastors and leaders of our churches? How does their failings affect us? I don’t have answers to these questions, but my gut tells me that we take these things to heart.
The takeaway here is that we need to be careful who we associate ourselves with. We ought to be sure about the “gang” in which we allow ourselves to be a part of. This doesn’t mean to pull away from society; it doesn’t work that way. It does mean that we should set our expectations for humans, and, I strongly believe, keep ourselves associated with the one true gang, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Keeping at the forefront of our thoughts that our more intimate and eternal association is with that infallible trinity will certainly help our perspectives on everything else.
How to Lose Like a Winner
At this point you may be thinking, “Well, this sucks. I am not one prone to winning in many areas of life. I guess I should go ahead and accept my life of man-jugs and continue allowing the crevices of my couch to be filled with potato chip crumbs.” Hold on just a second! There is more to this than simply walking away from a competition the victor.
The Testosterone-Draining Klondike Loop
Before you can lose, you have to compete. Technically this is not true, as you can forfeit which is essentially the same thing. In order to explain the problem with avoiding competition in order to avoid failure, I have come up with a theory I have aptly named the Klondike Loop.
When we avoid competition, we do not experience winning or losing, thereby decreasing our chance of winning by about 100% and also – and perhaps most importantly – we do not experience the blessings of failure. However, life isn’t one to keep us free from trials, and, when one comes along the stakes are generally high: you get fired, your marriage is in trouble, your kids are a mess, your cholesterol is up, etc. Winning typically involves foresight and experience in making right decisions. Men that avoid competition aren’t experienced and get so caught up in the moment they aren’t foresighted. Because of the high stakes and the lack of experience, if we fail during times of testing (or feel as though we have failed) we can take the hit harder, resulting in a cycle of self-pity, medicated by stacks of Klondike bars, hence the Klondike Loop. I suppose you could substitute Klondike for whatever your vice is, say, snickerdoodles, but “Snickerdoodle Loop” doesn’t sound very manly and this is supposed to be inspirational.
The point is, don’t fear competition, embrace it. Learn to enjoy the fray.
Building a Resilient Mindset
I have mentioned a few times now that our drop in T-levels is consistent with how hard we mentally and emotionally take the loss. The good news is that T-levels generally increase for men who engage in competition, regardless of whether they win or lose, but is higher for winners. One study measured testosterone levels in male wrestlers and found that both the winners and losers had increased levels after the match. The question then becomes, how does one learn to take defeat like a man so as not to lose the bump in Testosterone that comes from competition or challenges and fall into the downward and delicious spiral of the Klondike Loop? I believe resilience is the key.
Resilience is the ability to come away from a difficult challenge, even a defeat, with an optimistic outlook and perhaps a better man for having been through it. In short, it is an active optimism that provides men with the gumption to continue forward while others turn around. Developing resilience is worthy of an article of its own, but here are a few ways you develop a resilient mindset when it comes to competition and defeat.
Congratulate the winner — Take your eyes off of your defeat and heartily give the winner his due credit. If you were beaten squarely, chances are you can learn something from the other person and they deserve your admiration.
Keep the right perspective — A victory or loss doesn’t define a man. He is defined by his character in how he handles either.
Focus on the next fight — Or chess match or race or whatever it might be. The goal is to put your loss on the table, like an object, and study it objectively. If you can turn it into a teachable moment, you may have a victory after all.
Don’t get down on yourself — Keep in mind that men respect the guys in the ring or on the field. If the only way to manliness was constant winning, this world would have no hope.
My take away from doing this research is a license for aggression in certain circumstances. I’m a fairly laid-back guy when it comes to competition. Perhaps that comes from being an only child for so many years, whereas if I had a few brothers or even boys around the neighborhood I might feel differently. Although, it might just be my natural inclination. I feel a certain spirit of competition in the blogging world and writing world, and have felt that as well in the workplace. However, I need to branch out, especially in physical competitions. I think it would do me some good to win in other areas.
I suppose recognizing the areas in which we are winning, even in the small things in life we typically take for granted, could give us a boost as well. For certain, a positive outlook does more good for our bodies than we give it credit for.
Have any thoughts to share? Do so in the comments below!