The author, Tim Lomas, is Lecturer in Positive Psychology, University of East London. This article was originally published in The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community.
At last, the FIFA World Cup 2018 is here. After four years of waiting, and an interminable qualifying campaign, football’s finest are competing for the title. Excited fans (like me) have fixture lists pinned to the wall and our television viewing schedules mapped out.
That said, aspects of the whole affair do make me uneasy – not least the idea of national pride. And while I’ll be enthusiastically cheering on the England team and celebrating any success they might achieve (who knows?), that won’t stop me from thinking of pride as a complex and problematic phenomenon. Not for nothing is it known as one of the “seven deadly sins”.
The notion of the deadly (or cardinal) sins is thought to originate with an early Christian movement known as the “desert fathers”, especially Evagrius Ponticus, the 4th century ascetic. He identified eight evil thoughts or spirits that one needs to overcome in order to make spiritual progress and avoid misfortune.
The list was rendered into Latin, and in 590AD was revised by Pope Gregory into the canonical seven that are known universally today: gula(gluttony), luxuria (lust), avaritia (avarice), acedia (sloth), ira (wrath), and invidia (envy), and, last but not least, superbia (pride).
Of these, subsequent church leaders often placed particular emphasis on the latter as the root of the other sins. As Saint Augustine wrote: “It was pride that changed angels into devils”. In more recent times, the English author C.S. Lewis similarly called pride “the essential vice, the utmost evil”, since its excessive vanity and arrogance cuts us off from the humility required for salvation.
Modern psychology may not use such vivid, dramatic language. But pride is definitely seen as problematic. For instance, inflated self-assessments can prompt people into taking on tasks that exceed their capacities – potentially leading to failure. This outcome can be particularly damaging if one’s self esteem depends on external validation and achievement of these goals.
More perniciously still, pride can be imbued with noxious qualities, such as narcissism, which are linked to higher levels of aggression – particularly when inflated self-appraisals are threatened.
Pride can also be a collective phenomenon, which a person may experience on behalf of a group to which they belong. Although this can sometimes be a positive process, it can potentially have more damaging manifestations. These include a corrosive collective narcissism, an emotional investment in an unrealistic belief about the greatness of that group. Not only that, but the affection for those inside the group might then be matched by antipathy towards those outside it – sometimes with hostile, aggressive and even violent consequences.
Indeed, the history of humankind is a tragic demonstration of these dynamics. Take any major war or conflict and these destructive processes are clearly apparent.
They have cast a dark shadow over football too. In England, the game has previously been marred by violent hooliganism. After the terrible Heysel stadium tragedy in May 1985, in which 39 people died and 600 were injured during the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, English clubs were banned from European competitions for five years. And even while the behaviour of most fans has generally improved, many national teams still attract dark forms of nationalism and aggression.
How, then, should we feel about national pride in the coming weeks? It goes without saying that hostility and violence should have no place in football. But are all forms of pride bad?
After all, at an individual level, while narcissistic self-aggrandisement may be harmful, the value of qualities such as positive self-regard and confidence is still widely recognised. And at a collective level, movements such as Gay Pride show that upholding group self-worth can be affirmative and celebratory without denigrating others.
In that respect, perhaps we need a way of differentiating forms of pride, separating the good from the bad.
‘Fiero’: justified pride
In that respect, maybe it would be helpful to develop a more subtle lexicon that distinguishes between these types. And there are already efforts underway in psychology.
Consider the example of the Italian word “fiero”, one of those fascinating untranslatable terms which lacks an exact equivalent in the English language. I’ve become fascinated by such words, particularly ones relating to well-being, and have begun creating an evolving “positive lexicography” of these.
These words can reveal phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture and language.
In Italian, “fiero” can sometimes function in the same way as pride. However, the Italian psychologist Isabella Poggi has used it to describe a specific form of pride, one that is justified and earned, often because one has triumphed over adversity.
Consequently, influential theorist Paul Ekman has included “fiero” in his Atlas of Emotions, where he describes it as the “enjoyment felt when you have met a challenge that stretched your capabilities”. Crucially, rather than use the complex and ambivalent label of pride, he used “fiero” to depict the specific positive form of pride that he had in mind.
So perhaps I’ll aim for this kind of pride over the coming weeks. Not the kind that trumpets superiority over other teams – which could be difficult for an England supporter in any case – nor the sort that ignites hostility and aggression towards rival fans.
Rather, a pride that means being happy we’re there at the party. Being gratified if, win or lose, we try our best, play with passion and commitment, and carry ourselves with dignity and good grace. A kind of pride worth celebrating.