What the Olympics Can Teach Us About Happiness
The summer Olympics is a pretty exciting time.
Millions of people turn their eyes to the games to watch their athletes compete against others from all around the world.
History is made, records could be broken, and we see athletes try and realize their dreams after years of hard work on one of the biggest stages the world has to offer. Truly an inspiring event that only happens every four years.
Many of us are a bit awestruck by the dedication of the athletes to their sport. More than awe, though, we might actually learn a few other lessons from the Olympic games than just perseverance and grit. They might also have a few lessons to teach us about happiness.
Psychology has done a few studies surrounding the athletes and the games. We might be able to guage a person’s happiness by their reactions to success at the games, as well as learn a quirk about happiness when it comes to watching the athletes.
Watching the Medal Ceremony
Watching the games, you hear many of the uplifting stories of the journey some of the athletes take to get to the games.
It’s heartwarming to hear those stories, especially right before they receive their medals. They may be underdogs rising up through the ranks, new faces, and old veterans who are competing against the younger athletes.
But only one person can receive gold. As we watch them bend over to get that medal around their neck, some of us might have different reactions about the two people who receive silver and bronze medals.
Some of you might think about how sad or upset silver and bronze must be. All that hard work, and for what? How deeply disappointing to spend so much time training, and come just fractions of a second away from the gold.
Others might respond differently. Sure, gold would have been great, but it’s an honor just being up there. They’re among the best athletes in the world, and they should be proud of everything they accomplished.
The Value of a Gold Medal
These two different perspectives might be an indicator of how happy a person could be. At least that’s the conclusion of a recently published paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
In it, the authors write:
“Our study shows that happy spectators are less likely to devalue silver and bronze medals in relation to gold medals.”
Over three different experiments, researchers asked groups of people from South Korea and the US different questions about how they would rate the different Olympic medals.
Researchers determined participants happiness level by having them complete the Subjective Happiness Scale. They then asked them a few other questions.
First, they wanted to know which was a better way to rate a country’s success at the Olympics. Is it having the most gold medals? Or was having more total medals overall a better determinant of a more successful nation?
When looked at people’s answers, they found that happier people more strongly believed that it was the total number of medals that meant more success.
In another experiment, they had participants rate the value of different medals. They wanted to know how many bronze medals were worth a silver, or how many silver medals would equal a gold?
When results were tallied, the researchers found that happier people said it would take less silver and bronze medals to equal one gold medal. Unhappy people rated the gold as far more valuable.
Specifically, happy people estimated a gold medal equal to 2.68 silver. Unhappier participants rated one gold as equal to 4.14 silver medals.
Frequency of Happiness
The results of the study shows how your perspective might play a role into how happy – or unhappy – we might be as individuals.
The authors write:
“Happy people savor little things that occur frequently, whereas unhappy people strive for intense experiences that rarely occur.”
This lends evidence to a particular theory that psychologists have about happiness. The theory states that people with higher well-being will experience frequent and longer lived positive emotions. Instead of just a intense, short ones that don’t come along very often.
So when identifying someone who is happy, they’ll be more likely to appreciate the accomplishments of others whether small or big. Unhappier people may believe that the biggest prize is the only prize worth winning.
And speaking of medals.
The Happiness of Athletes
If you could chose between a silver or bronze medal, which would you choose?
Many of us would say silver is the pretty obvious choice. It’s objectively better than the bronze. Many of us would want to be 2nd place, not 3rd.
But you may be surprised to learn that a study found that when measuring who was happier, researchers discovered that bronze medalists were actually happier than silver medalists.
Why would 3rd place be happier than 2nd place?
The reason behind this is something psychologists call “counterfactual thinking.” It means that we have a tendency to imagine what the alternative would be instead of what actually occurred.
In the case of athletes, the silver medalists were wondering what they could have done differently. They were sooooo close to getting that gold.
But the bronze medalists took a completely different perspective. They were asking themselves “What if I wasn’t on the podium at all?”
This finding is backed up by another study that looked at the expressions of athletes during a judo competition in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
They studied an athlete’s expression at two different times. Immediately after the competition, and again when they were on the podium.
They found that 1st and 3rd place finishers had more positive expressions, and were more likely to exhibit genuine smiles than those people who had finished in second place.
Coming in Second
It seems that a bronze medalist is just happy to have won a medal. The silver, however focuses on how close they came to grabbing the gold. When measuring happiness on the Olympic podium, there’s really two winners and one loser.
However, most of us aren’t competing in physical competition on a world stage. We may not receive silver medals with millions of spectators at the end of the day, but there are times where we may feel like a runner-up.
We may get passed over for a promotion, not perform as well as someone else in a competition, or make the cut for an award. And many times we may even know who gets “first place.”
While we may come close to getting what we want, we won’t always get it. And it can be disheartening. But comparing yourself to the person who did, or agonizing over your mistakes, won’t get you where you want to go.
Don’t ruminate over what might have been. Instead take a lesson out of the bronze medalist’s playbook. Change your perspective.
Reframe your situation. Know that you performed admirably and appreciate the achievements you accomplished to get you where you are. In fact, it can be a springboard of motivation to do better the next time around.
Coming in second isn’t failure. And it isn’t fatal. Make it an opportunity to learn from any mistakes, grow as a person, but also be grateful for what you have accomplished.
The greatest athletes and business people never have an easy road to the top. In fact, you won’t develop a champion’s mindset without bumps in the road.