Who’s happier: the silver or bronze medalist?

The above question sounds preposterous. Of course, you’d say, second is much better than third! Well, that’s true. But as to who’s “happier,” the answer might surprise you.

During the Rio Olympics, plenty of post-race footages were snapped and, obviously, the gold medalist grinned the widest smile; but when they examined the faces of the 2nd and 3rd placers, oftentimes the one who took bronze beamed a more jubilant face.

“Winning a silver medal at the Olympic Games brings glory, but a bronze makes people happier,” wrote Stefan Klein in “The Science of Happiness: How Our Brains Make Us Happy and What We Can Do to Get Happier.”

Mr. Klein continued: “While the runners-up imagine themselves on the top step and are upset, having missed their goal by a few tenths of a second, the bronze medal winners feel terrific, as the social psychologist Victoria Medcec discovered at the Barcelona games in 1992. Those in third place were happy that they won a medal at all and made it into the record books, whereas the silver winners were mainly aware of what they’d just missed.”

Makes sense? Yes. Back in 1995, a study was conducted by the psychologists Victoria Medvec and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University and Scott Madey of the University of Toledo. They asked their students to evaluate video footages of athletes who joined the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

From a score of 1-to-10 (“1” being “agony” and “10” being “ecstatic”), the students ranked the happiness level that they perceived the winning athletes scored. The result? Those who won silver scored 4.8 while those who got bronze scored 7.1.

Stunning result! Isn’t this why they often refer to the 2nd placer as “the first loser?” Based on psychology — a topic that I relish and enjoy reading a lot about — the term is called “counterfactual thinking.” In simple words, it means that people compare their achievements to “what might have been.”

A silver medalist thinks… sayang, I missed being No. 1. A bronze medalist realizes.. salamat, I won a medal!

This happened in the 100-meter race in Brazil. After crossing the finish line first, Usain Bolt exhibited the happiest of smiles. He then uncorked his “Lightning Bolt” pose. The third placer Andre de Grasse looked equally overjoyed. The sad one? Justin Gatlin, silver medalist.

William James, the philosopher, wrote these words in 1892 and they still hold true today: “So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has ‘pitted’ himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts.”

In Rio, this also happened in golf between Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar. All the way to the 18th hole, Rose and Stenson were tied. But when Rose birdied the final hole to triumph, Stenson was downtrodden. He lost, Rose won Olympic gold and Kuchar celebrated his bronze.

“We are not suggesting, of course, that finishing second or coming close to a cherished outcome always leads to less satisfaction than a slightly more modest performance,” the study, led by the psychologist Medvec, continued. “Finishing second is truly a mixed blessing. Performing that well provides a number of direct benefits that increase our well-being: recognition from others, boosts to self-esteem, and so on. At the same time, it can indirectly lower satisfaction by the unfortunate contrast with what might have been.”

China has one such example: her name Fu Yuanhui. The Olympic swimmer is now world-famous not because of her achievement last month but because of her reaction after the 100-meter backstroke. Minutes after her Olympic swim — all captured in YouTube and with views exceeding a million — you can see Fu Yuanhui completely ecstatic and happy. The reason? She won bronze.

What’s the lesson for us non-Olympians and mere mortals? The meaning of success often depends on one’s expectations.

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