Happiness in golf
Another philosophical post here, but one that can just as easily be applied to life as it can golf. What does it take for us to be happy in golf? I think learning this idea early on can seriously help you throughout your golfing career – whether you are a beginner looking to get your first handicap, or a professional golfer, you can benefit from reading this.
Who is the happier person - the beginner golfer who gets the ball in the air for the first time, or Tiger Woods after hitting a 5 iron 200 yards over water to 40 feet? I can guarantee you it is the beginner. Even though, technically, the shot from Tiger was better, his expectations are much higher. When something doesn’t match our expectations, it leads to frustration. The beginner has just hit a shot much higher than their expectation, which causes elation and a feeling of happiness.
“Any time we exceed our expectation, it causes happiness. If our reality is below our expectation, we experience frustration, anger and other negative emotions”
There is a constant battle here between needing higher expectations to motivate and push ourselves into improving, but not so high that we lose enjoyment. Better players tend to fall much more on the ‘too high’ side of expectations. People with high expectations are usually very motivated individuals – the do-ers of society. They constantly push themselves to be better and better. Negative emotions, to a certain extent, can really help us in achieving this highly motivational state – contrary to the popular ‘positive psychology’ movement. But how many good players, or even tour players, do you see walking down the fairway with smiley faces, bouncing with joy at the shot they just hit on the green from 170 yards? If you are constantly pushing yourself to get better and better, having sky high expectations, you are going to be unhappy with your play more often than not.
When I first started golf, my first handicap was 33. “If I could just get down to 15 handicap, I will be good enough to get into the junior team”, I remember saying – thinking I would be finally satisfied with my golf. Within a year, I was there. Was I satisfied? Of course not. Now I wanted to get down to 6 handicap, so I could get into the men’s team and be the best junior at the club. Surely then I would be happy? Of course not; within a year I was there, but largely unhappy with my game as I now wanted to be scratch – surely that would make me happy, right? The better I got, the less satisfied I was. How often do we see this in other areas of life?
I think you get the picture. You must understand something, When a human being achieves something, initially it is a great experience. Whether this is winning the lottery, or winning a tournament. This elation can last days, weeks or even months, but eventually the human emotional system will not allow those high levels of emotion to remain. Changes occur on a biological level which mean eventually you are brought back to equilibrium, and the thing that originally caused such positive emotions now becomes the norm, and has much less of an effect on your emotional system. Acclimatization occurs.
Think about the fancy new car you bought. The first week it was amazing, you felt like a king driving around in it. You kept it clean every day, buffing the hood and shining the rims. After a month or so, It still felt good, maybe you cleaned it a little less. After a couple of years, it is now just your car. You don’t get any elation from driving it, and you are probably looking at other cars, in the hope that the next one will spark that emotion again. The same thing occurs in golf. The first time you hit one from the sweetspot and it flies in the air, it’s such a good feeling, even if the ball flew into the right rough. After a few years, the same shot will probably produce more anger than happiness. Your expectations have changed, not the result.
So how do we ‘be happy’ with our golf?
The first thing to realize is that getting better is not going to make you happier. In fact, in almost every case, after the acclimatization to this ‘new you’, you are more likely to be unhappy with your golf. Happiness is a choice, it’s a perspective, and it is also down to your expectations. Having constantly high expectations for your golf can be greatly motivating for you to move forwards. But understand that when you do move forwards, your expectation will also jump forwards again. This is like the horse chasing the carrot.
I am actually all for having high expectations, It is one of the only ways to really get good at this game. But being constantly unhappy with your state of play can also inhibit you reaching your true potential. You need to throw some balance in there every now and again. You need to occasionally eat the carrot.
Take some time out, and just think about how far you have come in golf. As a beginner, you were probably topping the ball every other shot, now you (hopefully) have the ability to hit the ball every time. Go out and play with some people who are just beginning in golf. Watch how much of a struggle it is for them, and realise that you were once there too. Make a conscious effort to really appreciate the ability you DO have, rather than focusing on the abilities you don’t (not for too long, you don’t want to get fully comfortable with where you are). It is an incredible feat of co-ordination to swing a sweetspot the size of a pea, 20 feet around your body in a circle, at close to 100 mph, trying to synchronise arm swing, body turn, wrist cock, weight shift and much more. A 3cm mistake can be the difference between topping the ball 1 meter and hitting a hole in one. A 3 degree mistake can be the difference between looking for your ball in the trees, and looking for your ball in the hole. So when you hit those shots that go down the fairway, give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve pretty much produced a miracle of skill. Celebrate your successes a little more often, let the bad shots go.
As a side note, I was recently in a small lull in my game. I went home to visit my parents, my mother told me to go to the attic to clean out some stuff and get rid of my old things I didn’t want so she could sell them. I found a folder that I instantly recognised. It was one filled with my visualised rounds of golf. It also had a list of the distances I hit every club in my bag, followed by ‘projections’ of goals. My 7 iron distance was, at the time, 95 yards. I had projected a 3 year goal of 120 yards, and a 10 year goal of 150. Instantly, I remember (as a 95 yard hitter) imagining how amazing it must be to be able to hit a 7 iron 150 yards – almost unthinkable at the time. Now, just over 10 years after that goal was set, I average 155-160, but have the ability to hit it 170 if I wish. The problem was that the distance kind of crept up on me. I got longer every year without noticing it, and my expectation quickly matched my new distance. I never gave myself the chance to eat the carrot. But sitting there, going through all my old goals and seeing how, not only had I reached them, but surpassed them, it made me feel really appreciative of how far I have come in golf. I think we all need to take some time out every now and again, and really think about where we are now, compared to where we have come from.
But golf is not only about goal achievement. Happiness is a choice in golf, as it is in life. It’s down to where you put your focus. Choose to go out and just appreciate every good shot you have hit. Appreciate the ability you have now – be happy with your golf, at least for the next round you play.