Why Third-Place Winners Are Often Happier Than Second-Place Winners

A closer look at the less-is-better effect

All images by the author

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.

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:

Image by the author. Inspired by an image by Christopher K. Hsee.

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.

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.

Cartoonist, science fan, PhD, eukaryote. Doesn't eat cats, dogs, nor other animals.

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