A team of researchers, led by one of my favorite thoughtleaders in the decision making (and why it is counterintuitive) space, did a study looking at video and audio for every winner of a medal in the 1992 Olympics. What they found is that bronze medal winners are happier than silver medal winners.
The reason (a hypothesis in the study, but shown over and over again in studies across the board) is that it comes down to counterfactual thinking – otherwise known as “What could have been!”.
When you win a silver, you focus on the fact that you almost won the gold. Just one place away. Oh how great that would have been! What could I have done differently? Obsess obsess.
But when you win a bronze, looking up doesn’t help. “Oh I could have won a silver!” just isn’t as obsession-worthy. Instead, the closest alternative, and therefore the one that attracts your mental focus is that you almost came in fourth. No medal at all. That is a huge difference. Nothing to show your friends. Nothing to hold up during a TV commercial (and therefore tons of $$ in lost endorsement opportunities).
So what does this teach the rest of us who are not competing in contests where you might explicitly come in second or third place? Every time you are thinking about your performance on something, your status in something, or whatever, be cognizant of what you compare yourself too. OK, maybe the Joneses next door have a nicer house. Maybe Mary in the office next to yours makes more money. Maybe the guy on the treadmill next to yours has a better physique. Put that thought out of your head. Instead, focus on the comparisons that are in your favor.
And the real truth of the matter is that this is not fooling yourself at all (although as you know from previous posts I am a big fan of the Placebo Effect). Out of the 7 billion people in the world, you are better off than 99% of them in more ways than you can count. And yet somehow, global studies of happiness show that some of the bottom 1% are much happier than you are. Think about that.