By On August 6th, 2012

The Olympics and the Psychology of Happiness: What can we learn from winning a silver medal?

The Olympics are exciting to watch as we see great performance and exhibitions of skill. Among the winners and losers we see a range of emotion from great elation to despair and exhaustion. It’s on the winner’s platform that we get to observe an interesting phenomenon which is being studied by sports psychologists and something that we can generalize to our own lives. What makes us happy may be a subjective experience related to winning. In the study, the research team examined photos of the faces of the gold, silver and bronze medalists. Guess who was the least happy? The silver medal winner often looked disappointed while the gold and bronze winners gleamed with success. So, the psychologists dug deeper. What they learned that happiness and satisfaction with achievement is driven by comparison.

The examples of how we rely on comparison with others were interesting. We compare our car with the car of someone we compete against. Is it newer, sleeker, faster, “cooler” or more expensive? The same occurs with houses, clothing and income. It even occurs with our children. Who is smarter, better looking, has more friends? The determinants of our happiness are based on how we stack up in these comparisons which occur in every part of our lives.

So, back to the winner’s podium; it’s easy to see why the gold medal winner is happy. That person is the best. The bronze is happy because he or she got on the podium and wasn’t a loser. But, the poor silver medalist wasn’t the first place winner. And, in their eyes they were number two. The silver and bronze winners each use a different frame for comparison.

How can we apply this to our lives? Does our happiness hinge on what we perceive to be our position in relationship to others. What measures of success can make us happy and content as people and what measures of success cause us to feel inadequate and in second place. The issues may relate to what we consider as success and goal attainment and how we frame our comparisons of ourselves vs. other people. Maybe, we shouldn’t use comparison with others as a yardstick. The measurement of success which contributes to our personal happiness could be more effective if we measure within ourselves and against our internal standards.

Is the gold medalist in a fragile position? What would happen if in the next games they won the silver? Would they be happy with being number two after being number one? And, can a person who achieves success in one area of their life ever step off the podium and be a person who is happy in the other aspects of their life? Or, will that intense comparison which drives them to win serve as their sole measure of happiness?

The study of the Olympic winners provides an interesting view of what success may really mean. Does depression comes from perceived losses over life’s up’s and down’s. In the treatment of depression can we learn to judge ourselves with an alternative measure?


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