I Am Trying to Break Your Eyes: A Lengthy Meditation on Baseball and the Science of Happiness

Note #1: A request. At the end of this piece, in the section called “Towards a Linear Weights of Joy,” I ask for actual substantive input on some questions about which I am a) curious and b) uncertain of how to answer myself. If possible, please limit your comments to the questions at hand. Having said that, I understand that some of you aren’t particularly fond of my contributions and take some pleasure in saying so. I would be remiss to rob you of said pleasure. For you, I invite you to email your complaints to ccistulli@yahoo.com.

Note #2: Much of the science here is of the “armchair” variety. Anyone with a more expert understanding of neurology is invited to correct the wild assertions which follow.

Note #3: This crap is long. If you only read one part, read the last section, entitled “Towards a Linear Weights of Joy.”

Father of Us All Bill James writes the following in a blurb to a recent-ish release from ACTA Sports called Diamond Presence:

There are two things that one can never say often enough: one, that the game exists only to be enjoyed; and two, that there is no limit to the number of ways that it can be enjoyed. Diamond Presence shines a light upon these two truths.

First, a quick note on the source. I recognize that the literary genre known as The Blurb does not always promote integrity in its author. It’s designed to sell books and thus can fall prey to what is frequently referred to as “the Evils of Capitalism.” However, I believe for two reasons that James means what he says here. For one, he’s Bill James, and Bill James is not in the habit of making empty claims, regardless of the context. For two, James makes very similar statements in a number of the Abstracts, which texts are not in front of me here, but which I have read separately and in digested form in Scott Gray’s The Mind of Bill James. Always the sentiment from James is similar: “I have only ever used stats as a tool to further my enjoyment of the game.” In other words, James never makes the stats an end in themselves, but only as a means to the his enjoyment.

Furthermore, because he’s Bill James and more or less the progenitor of the statistical revolution in baseball, his words carry a weight that no one else’s really do. I believe that what James is doing in this blurb is what he has made it his business to do over the last 30 years: to make explicit an idea we might spend most of our time understanding only implicitly, perhaps precisely because it’s so simple a concept. Baseball exists to be enjoyed: no one would deny that claim, and yet I’m not sure we spend enough time considering it explicitly.

Let’s begin by considering the uses of the present interweb site. Ultimately, as a FanGraphs reader, my concern isn’t ever with the site’s excellent player analysis or sweet use of Pitch f/x technology, per se. Those things are great, yes, but ultimately, the reason I point my internet browser this way — the reason anyone would — is because I find it pleasing in some way. Restated: I’m interested in reading FanGraphs, in particular, and statistical analysis about baseball, generally, only insofar as it adds to my enjoyment of baseball and my overall happiness.

Which it does. But the question, which I haven’t seen answered expressly — or even asked, necessarily — is: How?

And furthermore: Are we doing the best job of enjoying baseball as possible? Are we being efficient with our time spent watching baseball?

On Happiness, the Study of It

To begin to answer such questions, it probably helps to have something like a working knowledge of the science of happiness. The tradition of said science goes back to Epicurus, who advocated that we make a study of our pleasures. While the adjective “Epicurean” is now frequently used to suggest something like “person or thing dedicated to sensual pleasure,” Epicurus advocated nothing of the sort, viewing happiness instead as the complete absence of pain — and, in particular, the absence of anxiety. His four-part cure for anxiety, known as the tetrapharmakos and found in the first four maxims of his Principal Doctrines, goes as follows:

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure

Beyond that, Epicurus identifies two types of pleasure, the understanding and correct use of which he views as central to the good life. The first is the sort we receive from wine and sex (or anything else that R. Kelly talks about in Ignition Remix). These are pleasant but also fleeting and unable to affect our happiness in any profound way. The second is what Epicurus refers to in the Greek as ataraxia and upon which he meditates extensively in his extent works. Ataraxia is the sort of tranquility one receives from living well, and Epicurus made his life a study of it. He lived very simply, among close friends and adherents, and ate barley cakes almost exclusively*.

*Which, if you’ve had a barley cake recently, you’ll know that it’s responsible for very little sensual pleasure and hardly ever shows up in R. Kelly songs.

In recent years, thanks to contributions from the fields neurology and psychology (particularly that branch referred to as “positive psychology”), the understanding of human happiness and its causes has become considerably more robust.

Positive psychologist Martin Seligman makes a distinction not unlike Epicurus’s between different sorts of happiness. He separates sensations from tranquil feelings (ataraxia) with the terms pleasure and gratification, upon which concepts he expounds in his book Authentic Happiness (some of the examples from which I concede are regrettable and seem to be directed at a very specific sort of 45-year-old woman):

In ordinary English, we do not distinguish between the gratifications and the pleasures. This is truly a shame, because it muddles together two different classes of the best things in life, and it deceives us into thinking they can each be head in the same way. We casually say that we like caviar, a back rub, or the sound of rain on a tin roof (all pleasures) as well as saying that we like playing volleyball, reading Dylan Thomas, and helping the homeless (all gratifications). “Like” is the operative confusion. The word’s primary meaning in all these cases is that we choose to do these things over many other possibilities. Because we use the same word, we are inclined to look around for the same source of liking, and we slip into saying, “Caviar gives me pleasure” and “Dylan Thomas give me pleasure,” as if the same positive emotion existed underneath both as the basis of our choosing.

When I press people about the existence of that underlying positive emotion, I find one underneath the pleasures: great food, a back rub, perfume, or a hot shower all produce the raw feels of pleasure… In contrast, when I press people about the positive emotion of pleasure we allegedly feel when serving coffee to the homeless, or reading Andrew Barrett, or playing bridge or rock climbing, it is quite elusive. Some people can find a discrete emotion (“curling up on the couch with the book made me feel cozy all over”), but most cannot. It is the total absorption, the suspension of consciousness, and the flow that the gratifications produce that defines liking these activities — not the presence of pleasure. Total immersion, in fact, blocks consciousness, and emotions are completely absent.

The neurology of happiness poses difficulties for a scientific layperson such as myself, although if I’ve gathered anything from certain works by Richard Layard, Daniel Gilbert, and this clearly infallible website*, it seems as though there are two neurotransmitters (that is, chemicals which are responsible for helping neurons communicate with each other) that are of chief importance to our happiness and which correspond roughly to the division which both Epicurus and Seligman have made. In this case, we have the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for short term pleasure and feelings of euphoria or excitement (the pleasures). We receive doses of it naturally for as part of our own internal reward system, a way our bodies have of reinforcing certain behavior. One effect of drugs like cocaine and ecstasy is either to stimulate production, or inhibit the reuptake, of dopamine, thus allowing for an abundance of it to flood the brain. Excess levels of dopamine are often associated with schizophrenia. Parkinson’s patients possess a lack of it (i.e. a dopamine)**.

*I can only presume that the alternate spellings of “serotonin” are designed to keep the reader on his toes.
**Radio Lab features an interesting exploration of this.

The other of the important neurotransmitters is serotonin, which corresponds roughly to that feeling of well-being, of “absorption” about which Seligman speaks with regard to gratification. A lack of serotonin — either from lack of production or from too-quick decay — is a primary culprit in both depression and anxiety. Serotonin production is predicated on genetic disposition, formative life events, and day-to-day behavior.

Baseball Analysis as Gratification

During the fall of 2001, while living in Missoula, MT, I began experiencing some symptoms of generalized anxiety: occasional tightness or pain in the chest and limbs, invasive thoughts about death and illness*, and just a general uneasy feeling or “jumpiness.” It didn’t come as surprise, really: for an Italian person, I’d always looked and acted an awful lot like Woody Allen. Anyway, those symptoms persisted off and on into the next spring, at which time I developed a considerably less pleasant one (i.e. symptom): for long periods of time, and with no warning, I was unable to breathe involuntarily. That is, I was forced to breathe — inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale — consciously. It got to such a point that, were I to stop thinking about breathing, I would stop actually breathing. Needless to say, that type of thing will put a damper on the old social life.

*As in, I was positively convinced, at different points, that I suffered from any the following conditions: lupus, HIV, scurvy, large wrist, hairy eyeball, etc.

After that, and in this particular order, I (a) freaked out a whole bunch, (b) went to the doctor, and (c) got myself a prescription to Paxil, a class of drug known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). The main function of an SSRI is to slow the decay of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, so that it hangs around long enough to provide those benefits described above.

But medication alone is not a sufficient treatment. Behavior plays a major role, too. And just as Seligman discusses above with regard to gratifications, it is essential to find activities in which one can feel wholly immersed. After some idle experiments with yoga and animal husbandry*, it became clear what those activities would be: watching, listening to, and reading about sport. Baseball, in particular.

*Together, at the same time. Disgusting.

My path to FanGraphs is probably very similar to the reader’s. At first, I followed only my hometown team. Then I played fantasy baseball. Then I read certain seminal texts in/about sabermetrics: Moneyball, BP’s Mind Game, some Baseball Prospectuses (Prospecti?), Tom Tango’s The Book, some of the old Abstracts. Then I started reading Baseball Reference for fun. Et cetera, et cetera.

The fact is that there is so much to know about baseball — more than we ever could know, probably — that, so long as one is not overwhelmed by what he doesn’t know, than he can make baseball research and analysis a full-time pursuit.

I think this is more or less the answer to that first question up above: How does reading FanGraphs add to enjoyment of the game and overall happiness? The answer is something like: by constantly reinforcing this feeling of immersion, of absorption. Again, on account of I’m not a scientist, I can’t say how exactly it affects the brain, but my guess is that it has positive affects on serotonin levels and thus feelings of well-being.

Baseball Spectatorship and Pleasure

But what about the short term pleasures of baseball? The bursts of joy, in which the spectator receives those doses of dopamine? Beyond the sorts of gratification we receive merely from knowing about baseball, what can happen while watching a game that has caused so many to dote on over the sport with such vigor?

It’s often said that the triple is “the most exciting play in the game.” Maybe that’s true. I mean, it’s pretty exciting, but I’m not sure it’s the reason I watch. Plus, it doesn’t happen often enough for it to be a reliable occurrence. Walk-off home runs? Those are pretty great, too. Again, though, I can be perfectly satisfied without one happening. The “cat and mouse” relationship between pitcher and batter? Sure, that’s probably also part of it.

I think there are some pleasures, too, that are less well eulogized but still pretty significant. The question is: What are they?

It’s a topic about which I’ve wondered idly rather often, but something Rob Neyer wrote about recently helped me to think about it in a different way.

Last week, in a post about Carlos Carrasco’s first major league start, Neyer began his entry by stating, “Well, I know which game I’m watching tonight.” Clearly, it was the anticipation of Carrasco’s start that appealed to Neyer. I felt the same way. Who knew what was going to happen, but here was a prospect about to make his debut.

It got me thinking: the anticipation of excellence or excitement is often a significant factor in my decision to watch a particular game. Of course, a spectacular event is nice when it occurs, but I’ve gotten to the point now where my brain anticipates those pleasures before they occur. I’m not unlike Pavlov’s dog, except instead of a ringing bell, it’s the baseball game that causes me to salivate. The dopamine is released before anything great happens at all.

It’s this fact which has always led me to question the logic of Wallace Stevens’ claim in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

In the enjoyment of baseball, I’m not sure the beauty is either the inflections or the innuendoes. Rather, much of the beauty is in the anticipation of what might happen next.

Let’s consider what all those events might be.

Towards a Linear Weights of Joy

How do we choose which game to watch on any given night? Are we as scientific/efficient about it as possible, as far as maximizing our pleasure goes?

I’ll guess that the answer to the second question is, in short, “No.” It’s surprising to me that, if we take for granted James’s assertion at the beginning of this post — that the game exists to be enjoyed — it’s surprising that there is so little analysis of the joy we derive from certain baseball events, especially as compared to the wealth of performance analysis.

Of course, we understand inutuitively what we enjoy about the game: the anticipation of Carlos Carrasco’s debut, the depth and fade of Tim Lincecum‘s change-up*, the length of Mark Reynolds‘s home runs. But before Bill James & Co began looking more closely at baseball, there was also a general intuitive understanding about what won baseball games. Sure, certain metrics were overvalued, but it was mostly clear which players were good and bad.

*Which, actually now that I look at it on Pitch f/x, isn’t nearly as crazy as I thought. Horizontal movement is only – 3.2 inches versus league average of – 6.3 in. Vertical movement is 3.8 in versus league average of 4.9. Still, as David Allen has noted, it’s a crazy good pitch.

At this point, I think we’re in a relative dark ages in terms of understanding our enjoyment of the game. Again, I understand intuitively that I’m more attracted to certain pitching match-ups or lineups than others, but ideally there’d be a number — a probability of certain events occurring — which could serve as a guide to my decision-making process.

Perhaps it’s naive of me to think so, but I wonder if we could produce something like a linear weight of baseball-related pleasures. Like actual linear weights, this would give us a sense of the platonic “joy value” of any baseball event. Nor by “baseball event” would we have to consider only those which the actual linear weights covers — discrete events such as singles, home runs, strikeouts, etc — but really anything that could potentially bring joy to a spectator: the vertical movement of a fastball, the True Distance of a home run, even the joy of anticipation associated with a rookie’s debut. There’d be a number that could predict the relative entertainment value of a game, which could predict how many moments of pleasure I might derive from said game.

While opinion certainly differs on the pleasures a baseball event could bring, I think there’s also enough agreement that it wouldn’t be a vain pursuit. Consider: would you rather watch Brian Moehler pitch or Charlie Haeger? If your answer is Moehler and you’re not a) related to him, or b) Brian Moehler himself, then you’re a giant liar.

So here are two questions with which I’d like to leave you, and which I invite you to answer below.

1. What do you watch for in games? Why do you tune in or show up to the game? What events/aspects do you consider the most exciting in baseball? Consider anything that gives you pleasure, from the arc of a curveball to a hitter’s approach to a guy with awesome facial hair.

2. What are the relative worths of the events/aspects you chose? Rank them maybe. Or suggest how the crap one might weigh them so’s to approach something like this linear weights of joy.



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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.


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