What Bronze Medallists Can Teach Us About Happiness

The importance of coming third

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In a well-known study, psychologists asked people to look at medalists and rate their level of happiness based on their facial expressions. You would assume gold medalists will be at the top of this list, followed by silver and bronze. Yet, this was not the case. 

The findings were surprising. In fact, bronze medalists are generally more content than silver medalists, despite having finished behind them.

What does this tell us about the way that we approach happiness every day?

👩‍🏫 Lesson of the week

The whole idea of nearly missing out on something better makes people less happy than imagining having missed out on it entirely. 

Hence the unexpected victory of bronze medalists in the happiness championships.

"Silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medalists; bronze medalists compare themselves to themselves"

Whenever we are approaching something in life, our mind keeps pushing us forward - yet being better does not make us feel better; it all depends on our reference points.

Psychologists associate this phenomenon with counterfactual thinking. This means that people compare their objective achievements to what "might have been."

Psychologically, we need to find reference points that can keep us grounded and remind us how we can make success easy to achieve.

"The most obvious counterfactual thought for the silver medalist might be to focus on almost winning gold... The bronze medalist, however, might focus their counterfactual thoughts downward towards the fourth place. She would focus on almost not winning a medal at all"

By imagining the outcome that didn't happen, silver medalists focus on "I nearly did that." They can easily visualise (and in a way relive) how they could have won the gold. Instead of focusing on the win, they feel like they lost. Bronze medalists can picture not winning a medal as an alternative. Therefore, for them, third place is a win.

What can we pick as more positive and uplifting reference points?

Create Your Success Loop

Do you ever feel accomplished at the end of one given day? How do you feel when you know that your day has been successful?

For so many people, it is hard these days to fully quantify what a successful day means. These are three things you can

Identify Your Reference Points

Take a moment to reflect on your recent achievements. Write down three things you accomplished in the past month. Next to each, note what you initially compared these achievements to (e.g., “I didn’t get the top spot,” “I wasn’t as fast as others”).

Reframe Your Success

For each accomplishment, reframe your perspective. Instead of comparing yourself to the “gold medalists,” compare your current self to where you started. How have you grown? What skills have you developed? What obstacles have you overcome? Write down these positive reflections.

Set Positive Reference Points

Choose one area of your life where you often feel you fall short. Identify three new, positive reference points you can use moving forward. For example, if you’re working on a fitness goal, instead of comparing yourself to professional athletes, compare your current progress to your own past performance.

🏫 Class in session

Since I am going to be off for a few weeks, I am going to go through a little bit of a backlog of some of my favourite podcast interviews from season six, including this amazing chat with Ramli John.

How can we overcome the envy of not getting first?

By reframing success, we can acknowledge how, by going through a challenge, entering a competition, achieving a goal, we became better than when we were started. Instead of using the destination as our reference point, we can use the journey that got us there. 

What about the lessons you can learn from the journey? How did these influence you?

Fall in love with the journey so that you can surrender to the outcome;

Happy people frame things in a way that they can sustain their happiness, so it's time you find better reference points for a happier life. Be like a bronze medalist and quit the comparison habit.

Always cheering you on,

Fab ✌️

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