Racing for gold
Imagine yourself performing your favourite sport in the Tokyo Olympics – maybe a running event. You’ve worked hard, trained for it, you’re ready for the big day. On the day, it gets off to a good start, you race hard, and it goes better than expected. You cross the finish line behind the world number one, but you are just ahead of your other main rival – you come second place and get silver! As you stand there on the podium, across from your rival who got bronze – who do you think has the biggest smile?
Intuitively, you would expect silver medal winners to be happier than bronze medal winners, but a study by Medvec et al.(1995) looked at the emotional expressions of athletes at the summer 1992 Olympics, found that bronze medallists seemed happier than silver medallists, both immediately after the event and on the podium. How can that be?
The answer to the question is comparison. When we assess a situation, we compare what actually happened to ‘what might have been’. The silver medallists focussed on how they almost won the race – so coming second was good, but a disappointment compared to ‘what might have been’. However, the bronze medallists were just pleased that they got a medal at all – they compared themselves to the non-medallists who were nipping at their heels as they ran, so they were delighted to make it onto the podium.
When making comparisons, be careful which way you look
If bronze medallists can be happier than silver medallists by a downward comparison (what happened was better than might have been), can we apply this principle to make ourselves happier? The answer is yes. Happy people tend to see the positive side of the situation, and one way to do this is by consciously make comparisons to what might have been worse, or how things have improved over what has happened before, rather than focussing on what’s not going well. Several years ago, when one of my children was struggling with extreme anxiety about attending school, I had to try really hard not to compare our family to the ‘norm’ where children just trot into school as expected (and to start beating myself up for failing as a parent), but instead compare each tiny step forward to what happened the day before, or what might have been. Yes, my child was only managing half a day at school, but that was better than no days at all. Documenting each small step in a gratitude diary helped me cope.
Another more cheerful example from my life comes from a couple of years ago when I was regularly doing the park run (a non-competitive 5k run with others around the park each Sunday morning). I’m a really bad runner, and I generally counted my success as to how far from the back that I was, rather than how close to the front, but I could make my success even richer when I thought about others not there – I might be the slowest runner in the park, but at least I was a runner in the park, so I had won against everyone still lying in bed.
Beware unconscious comparisons
As well as consciously comparing to other situations, we need to keep an eye on the unconscious comparisons we make, which we can do by checking what inputs we let into our lives. There has been much concern about how social media affects people’s wellbeing and it’s easy to see why. If we spend too much time following glamorous people in exotic locations, we will start to feel like silver medal winners, missing out on the gold. One solution is to cut back on the social media, but another solution is to choose your inputs more carefully. Follow people who inspire you by their attempts to make the world a better place: on my Instagram I follow a friend’s daughter who inspires me with pictures of her yoga and vegan recipes; and Oxfam, whose posts regularly remind me of how lucky I am compared to women in other parts of the world.
As well as social media – look at who you socialise with and make sure you stay grounded. If you are constantly mixing with people with more disposable income than you, this again might make you feel like you are missing out on gold. Keep your feet on the ground by mixing with a variety of people from different backgrounds (try volunteering) – this also helps stop us living in a ‘bubble’ where we think everyone thinks like us, which can lead to a divisive society which is good for no-one. One thing to watch for when comparing yourself to others less well-off is not to fall into the trap of thinking that we are somehow ‘better’ because we’ve made better choices. As the saying goes, do not judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. We can never fully understand another’s experience, but the more we try to, the richer and more meaningful our own world becomes.
Is it always bad to compare ourselves to others who are more successful than us?
Although we may be happier by focussing on what we have achieved, rather than on what we haven’t, there is sometimes value in comparing ourselves to the gold medallists that we look up to. If we look up with a view to learning what we can do better and how to overcome obstacles, then this can be useful. But again, choose carefully who you learn from – living a meaningful life will make us happier than chasing materialistic dreams. That’s not to say money is bad – earning good money to look after your family is deeply meaningful, but if you want to be happy, spend money on other people or experiences, not just acquiring more ‘things’.
Summing it up
If you want to be happier and more resilient, make sure you compare your circumstances favourably to “what might have been”. Use downward comparison to ground yourself and become appreciative of what you have now. But you can look upward and forward too – use a sprinkling of upward comparison to inspire yourself and learn from other’s achievements. When looking to the future, let yourself dream about gold from time to time, but when you look back on your life, be happy with bronze.
Medvec, V. H., Madey, S. F., & Gilovich, T. (1995). When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among olympic medalists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 603–610. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1993
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