Watching sport frequently grows the happiness region of the brain

Watching sports, the researchers argue, ‘‘fosters a sense of community and belonging among audiences’’.

Watching sports, the researchers argue, ‘‘fosters a sense of community and belonging among audiences’’.

In 2017, the National Broadband Network commissioned a study that found Australians were watching 60 million hours of sport every week.

The study also found that seven million people ‘‘believe in-home experiences are better than at-stadium games and matches because it allows them to get closer to the action’’.

Apart from the accumulating chip crumbs and beer stains on the carpet, does this matter?

In the grand scheme of things – the tragedy and turmoil of our divided world – you would think probably not. But we’ll come back to that.

Watching a game of footy or cricket or the Olympics at home can be exciting and relaxing. There’s even an argument that watching sports, in the place of your choosing, is good for your wellbeing.

This might serve as a good excuse – or a weak try-on – when other members of the family turn up their noses at your armchair obsession.

But a new three-tiered study out of Japan finds there are health benefits in watching sports, and that these benefits are more pronounced in large gatherings.

Watching sports, the researchers argue, ‘‘fosters a sense of community and belonging among audiences’’.

This sense of connection ‘‘not only makes individuals feel good but also benefits society by improving health, enhancing productivity, and reducing crime’’.

(The ‘‘reducing crime’’ finding doesn’t appear to have been explored. But keep it in mind when travelling home by train with a pack of drunken yobs unhappy with how the game went.)

 The new study

Firstly, the researchers from Waseda University in Tokyo analysed available data on the influence of watching sport on 20,000 Japanese residents.

Short version: Elevated wellbeing was associated with regular sport viewing. No surprise.

Secondly, an experiment, which involved exposing 208 participants to a variety of sport videos, assessed participants’ wellbeing both before and after viewing.

The main finding, again, wasn’t overly revelatory. Widely embraced sports, like baseball (this being Japan), “exerted a more significant impact on enhancing wellbeing compared to less popular sports, such as golf”.

This raises interesting questions about sport as religion that could have been further explored. At what point does a sport’s popularity take on a life of its own?

Also, do ardent fans of less-popular sports, with smaller crowds, experience a different kind of emotional high?

The most interesting aspect of this research was in the third study. This involved 14 participants whose brain activity was observed and measured using MRI neuroimaging. This occurred while the participants watched sports clips.

The brain scans showed that ‘‘sports viewing triggered activation in the brain’s reward circuits, indicative of feelings of happiness or pleasure’’.

But it went further. Participants ‘‘who reported watching sports more frequently exhibited greater grey matter volume in regions associated with reward circuits’’.

This suggested that regular viewing ‘‘may gradually induce changes in brain structures’’.

Notably, that the regions associated with happiness actually get bigger with repeated viewing of your favourite games.

Corresponding author Professor Shintaro Sato said: “Both subjective and objective measures of wellbeing were found to be positively influenced by engaging in sport viewing.

‘‘By inducing structural changes in the brain’s reward system over time, it fosters long-term benefits for individuals.’’

He said for those ‘‘seeking to enhance their overall wellbeing, regularly watching sports, particularly popular ones such as baseball or soccer, can serve as an effective remedy”.

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