If you've been watching the Winter Olympics at all, you know the medal podium is an emotional place. There is triumph and joy, but there are also tears and envy. What sets happy champions apart from miserable ones? Not, apparently, the color of the medal around their neck.
Why bronze medalists are happier
In one classic study, psychologists asked people to look at medalists and rate their level of joy based on their facial expressions. You might think this is a silly exercise -- clearly gold medalists are going to win the happiness stakes too, followed by silver and then bronze, right? But that's not what scientists found.
Instead, the numbers clearly showed that bronze medalists are generally significantly happier than silver medalists, despite having finished behind them. Other studies using slightly different methods (and sports) have confirmed the findings.
So why are silver medalists more unhappy? It comes down to what scientists call "counterfactual dreaming" and what the rest of us know as "daydreaming about what might have been."
"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 fourth place. She would focus on almost not winning a medal at all," explains Scientific American's write-up of this line of research.
Thinking about narrowly missing out on something better obviously makes people less happy than imagining having missed out on glory entirely. Hence the unexpected victory of bronze medalists in the happiness championships.
A happiness lesson we can all learn from
That's a fun thing to watch out for while viewing medal ceremonies in Pyeongchang, but it also suggests a valuable happiness lesson for all of us, athletes and couch potatoes alike. Happiness, a mountain of science shows, has surprisingly little to do with your objective situation. Lottery winners, for instance, usually revert to their pre-windfall happiness levels quickly. For the most part, so do those who suffer a life-changing disability, like paralysis.
Whether we're joyful or miserable depends instead on how we value what we have. And how much gratitude you feel for what you've got depends a ton on what you're comparing it to. If, like a bronze medalist, you often think, 'Gee, life would be way more awful if I didn't have X,' you're likely to be happier -- even if X is something relatively modest. Meanwhile, if you spend lots of time with thoughts like, 'I have X but my neighbor/co-worker/sister has way more awesome thing Y' than you are going to be unhappy, even if X is a fancy new car or fabulous beach vacation.
The bottom line wisdom you can learn from bronze medalists is that you control your own happiness way more than you think you do. And one big way to exert this control is by policing when and how you make comparisons. In short, pay less attention to others, and more attention to how things could be worse.
Or as NBC succinctly neatly phrases it in its recent article on this research, "Silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medalists; bronze medalists compare themselves to themselves." Be like a bronze medalist and quit the comparison habit.