Cornell University of the United States studied happiness among silver and bronze medalists in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Using TV relay broadcasts, the researchers measured the happiness of individual medalists on a scale of one to 10 when their final scores were announced. The average happiness index of a silver medalist was 4.8, while that of a bronze medalist was 7.1. This means third-place finishers were happier than runners-up. At the award ceremony, the happiness index of the bronze winner was 5.7 as opposed to 4.3 for the silver medalist. What explains this?
The answer lies in different standards. While a silver medalist aims for the gold, a bronze medalist has no such pressure. He or she tends to feel grateful and joy over getting a medal. Satisfaction based on achievement is relative, and can be called the relativity principle of happiness. Our ancestors seem familiar with this notion, with a saying that goes, “A person should know one’s place. Living not in accordance with one’s means only sows the seed of unhappiness.”
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I can totally empathize with being less satistfied at winning 2nd place than 3rd, 4th, or even 5th. Almost succeeding at something sometimes feels, in my opinion, worse than obvious failure.
If I know I have a slim chance of succeeding at something, I can allow myself to relax and enjoy the experience, feeling pleasantly surprised at any resulting success. I find myself far less able to appreciate a competition for its own sake when I can see perfection lying just beyond my grasp. Then I can’t help but think, “If only I had done this, that, or the other, I could have come out on top at the end of all this.” I try not to fall into this negative thought pattern, but it is difficult to avoid.