The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How losing can bring an emotional windfall

In praise of consolation prizes.

Simply recognizing someone’s effort can have a dramatic impact. (Michael Fiala / Courtesy of the Revs Institute / Reuters)

When I was young, I especially loved the “consolation prize”: the small toy or piece of candy given to the loser in a game. At my sixth birthday party, my mother ran a freeze-dancing competition to old-school French pop spun on vinyl. The smooth movers got little dolls, but the bad dancers got whimsical lollipops we bought at the special confectioner’s all the way out in the next county, huge fruit-flavored saucers decorated with lions’ and tigers’ heads done in icing.

The consolation prize always felt more wondrous than the trophy from a real win. You had failed, and yet the world treated you with pleasure anyway. They say it is sweet to receive what we deserve, but it seemed sweeter to me to get what I hadn’t, apparently, deserved; I kept these lollipops in my nightstand for years, a sugary reminder of grace.

Are the greatest joys of our lives the prizes we seek or the consolations? Sometimes, when I’ve strived toward big goals, I’ve felt disappointed. When I win, it is only what I anticipated, the proper conclusion of a kind of equation. When I lose, I felt keenly the inefficiency of my efforts.

Into those darker moments come the consolations. Consolations are the green buds that sprout unbidden, unplanted, after a fire has swept out your spirit: the long-lost friend who calls you, three times, until you pick up. The unexpectedly resonant poem delivered to your inbox by a poem-a-day bot. A billboard with a coincidental message. The sweet cold of the post-loss glass of beer. A post-breakup sunrise.

We see the word “consolation” a lot in old philosophical and religious texts. It communicates the truth that life can be hard; that success isn’t always commensurate with effort; that we have to love ourselves and others and seek joy anyway. Supposedly the 5th-century orator Antiphon ran a “consolation booth” in the center of the Athenian agora for people who were bereaved. A sign on the booth promised that he would listen to their woes and respond — and, with this mere act, help heal them.

Even chimpanzees know the value of consolation. In his book “The Age of Empathy,” primatologist Frans de Waal writes about the wonder he felt when he watched what occurred after a fight between chimps: The bystanders rushed to the loser, not to the winner. Losers would be consoled by another chimp in a display that was “quite emotional, with both chimps literally screaming in each other’s arms,” he writes.

But I don’t see the word around much anymore. In fact, according to a Google search of more than 5 million English-language books in its corpus, we use “consolation” in our books almost five times less now than we did in 1800.

What has replaced it? The concept of “self-care,” which began to take off in the individualistic 1980s. Self-care is supposed to be a prescription for any depression or loss. The Internet is awash in self-care handbooks and recipes. They advise us, in the face of adversity, to “get up early and read inspirational books,” “eat a fresh bagel at a local shop while doing a crossword puzzle,” “spend a day exploring your town” or “get a facial.” A friend of mine recently posted her own self-care regimen on Facebook: “Eat two home cooked meals before 1pm and drink one raw juice. . . . Read everything. Take care of large animal (dog). Love and support partner, but do not ‘take care’ of partner like you take care of dog.”

The temptation of self-care is its individualism, its promise that we can control our sorrows and turn around our lives according to a kind of equation — bagel + facial = serenity — and all by ourselves, without relying on other people. The trouble with it, though, is that it isn’t remotely consolation. It’s another project, another goal; its purpose is to return us to a state in which we can grasp those top prizes. It sets yardsticks by which we measure up (how fresh was the bagel we ate?) or don’t. It’s another prize we win or lose.

I miss the idea of consolation in public life. Where are the consolation prizes associated with big awards? (Once, the head of a composition prize I entered wrote me to recognize my effort even though I had lost; it meant more to me than some wins but is such rare behavior. We’ve become used to winner-takes-all and no acknowledgement for competing.) Where is the consolation booth in Dupont Circle or Times Square? How much time do we spend consoling others or asking for consolation (after our divorces, our losses, our mistakes), rather than just feting our weddings, our babies, our wins? The idea of consolation supposes not only that our lives depend on things outside of us — luck, the benevolence of others — but that the world outside of us can provide us help just when we need it, not in the form of something we managed to earn but in that more gracious form: the gift.