Why Third-Place Winners Are Often Happier Than Second-Place Winners
There’s a strange phenomenon among Olympic medal winners: athletes who’ve won a silver medal are generally not as happy as those who’ve won a bronze medal. If you didn’t know this, you’re probably scratching your head right now: “Wait, what? Earning third place makes people happier than earning second place?”
But that’s exactly what a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology discovered. In fact, it’s not only Olympic athletes who are often happier with an objectively worse option. This phenomenon, known as the less-is-better effect, shows up in other contexts as well, such as in gift giving, shopping, and buying ice cream. For instance, you generally get a bigger smile from someone if you gift them a 45 dollar scarf than if you give them a more expensive 55 dollar coat.
“But why? Why would someone who’s getting an inferior option be happier than someone who gets a more valuable one? It doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
Well, actually, it does. And you’re probably susceptible to this effect as well. But don’t worry, that’s not a bad thing. You may even exploit it for your own happiness. Let me explain.
The story of two ice cream vendors
As a kid I was always jealous of ice cream vendors. I thought they had the best job ever. I mean, who wouldn’t want to gorge themselves every day on the most joyous frozen food imaginable and then barf up a rainbow of colors. So let me fulfill this childhood dream right now and pretend I’m an ice cream vendor.
There I am, with my ice cream shop near the beach and a steady inflow of flip-flop wearing families in Hawaiian shirts. As the parents stand back, their little kids point fingers at the different flavors and I cheerfully scoop chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream into paper cups according to their wishes.
They leave smudged fingerprints on the glass cover of my gelato ice cream freezer, but I don’t care. Life is good, business is good, and I’m happy.
But then, one day, this mustache twirling bastard shows up:
And what the heck?! He opens up an identical ice cream parlor just across the street. He sells the exact same ice cream I do, he charges two dollars per cup like I do, and he even freaking looks like me — with the exception of his silly mustache. And you won’t believe it! That shameless copycat even painted his walls with my signature red and white stripes!
If all that wasn’t bad enough, for some mysterious reason, he’s now outcompeting me. He sells more ice cream than I’ve ever sold and is stealing my customers. My dear families in Hawaiian shirts are now all waiting in line in front of his stupid ice cream parlor.
And no, his servings are not bigger than mine. I’ve checked. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. I give my customers eight ounces per cup while he only gives them seven. And still they flock to him!
So, what’s his trick? What evil magic is he using? Why is everyone falling for this stingy old miser with his smaller cups?! Is it his mustache? Is he somehow hypnotizing the innocent children with it?
It’s the paper cups
What do you mean “it’s the paper cups”? We both use the same, except that mine are bigger because I give my customers more ice cream per cup. Here, look at them:
The cup on the left is what I sell. The one on the right is what he sells. As you can see, I’m more generous than he is. My big cups can hold the eight ounces I hand out; whereas his pitiful small cups can only hold seven ounces at most. There is no reason any sensible person should buy from him and pay the same price to get less.
And then it dawns on me.
Wait. People are not sensible. People are deeply irrational. They don’t care about objectively getting more ice cream. They care about getting more ice cream than they were supposed to get. But my cups look half empty. They look like I’m not properly filling them. My competitors small cups, on the other hand, always look overfilled, as if he was cramming them as full as they could possibly be. That’s why my evil twin sells more ice cream! He’s less generous, but that’s not what people perceive. All they see is that I’m giving them less than I could have given them.
So that’s it! I need to squeeze my eight ounces into teeny tiny cups. Then my cups will look even more loaded than his and I’ll be hailed as the more generous vendor.
How the less-is-better effect affects Olympic athletes
The same logic that applies to ice cream cups also applies to Olympic medal winners. Athletes don’t look at what they’ve objectively won. Instead, they compare their current situation with what they think they could have gotten.
So, silver medalists are unhappy because they just missed out on gold. They think winning gold was a possibility and, in light of that, they think of themselves as losers who only made it to second place.
Bronze medalists, on the other hand, are ecstatic. The alternative they compare themselves to is not getting a medal at all. In their mind, they’ve almost failed being on the winner podium, and yet, somehow, they made it there after all. All they see is that they’re among the world’s best athletes and that they’ve beaten almost everyone else who competed with them — all the other athletes who will leave the Olympics without a medal.
Can you exploit the less-is-better effect to be happier?
Once you’re basic needs are taken care of and you’re not starving and miserable, what you have is not what makes you happy. If it was, we would all be orders of magnitude happier than our ancestors, who had so much less than we do.
But we’re not happier. In fact, we’re probably less happy because we no longer compare ourselves with just our neighbors. We compare ourselves with everyone who’s better off, no matter where they live — people who’s existence we wouldn’t even know about if it wasn’t for this hyper-connected age.
You hear it all the time: “Dream big, reach for the stars, and have high expectations.” But if that’s how you approach life, then you can’t help but be disappointed. You’ll be going through life feeling like the universe is always dishing out less ice cream than you were supposed to get.
If, however, you regularly contemplate worst-case scenarios — scenarios in which life hands out nothing but empty cups — then you’re much more likely to be delighted by every little bit of ice cream you get.
As Tyler Durden put it in the movie Fight Club,
We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
As long as you keep thinking you were supposed to have more, you’ll have a hard time being happy. Gratitude is a key ingredient for happiness. So don’t delude yourself in thinking you were supposed to be a millionaire or a star. Don’t compare yourself with those who are better off than you. Compare yourself with the billions across the world who have empty cups in their hands. Look down, not up. Be a bronze medal winner — happy to have a medal at all and not envious of gold. As trite as it sounds, being grateful for what you have really does make you happier.
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