How Coming Second Can Help Us Being Happier

Fab Giovanetti

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In a world where we are pushed to excel, can we find happiness and success in coming second?

We are constantly looking outside to find references that can show us what success truly ‘looks like’.

In a well-known study, psychologists asked people to look at medalists and rate their level of happiness based on their facial expressions. You would assume gold medalists will be at the top of this list, followed by silver and bronze. Yet, this was not the case.

The findings were surprising. In fact, bronze medalists are generally more content than silver medalists, despite having finished behind them. What does this tell us about the way that we approach happiness every day?

The whole idea of nearly missing out on something better makes people less happy than imagining having missed out on it entirely.

Hence the unexpected victory of bronze medalists in the happiness championships. “Silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medalists; bronze medalists compare themselves to themselves” stated NBC in a piece around the research.

Whenever we are approaching something in life, our mind keeps pushing us forward — yet being better does not make us feel better; it all depends on our reference points.

Set Better Reference Points

Psychologists associate this phenomenon with counterfactual thinking. This means that people compare their objective achievements to what “might have been.”

Psychologically, we need to find reference points that can keep us grounded and remind us how we can make success easy to achieve.

“The most obvious counterfactual thought for the silver medalist might be to focus on almost winning gold… The bronze medalist, however, might focus their counterfactual thoughts downward towards the fourth place. She would focus on almost not winning a medal at all” 

explains Scientific American’s write-up of this line of research.

By imagining the outcome that didn’t happen, silver medalists focus on “I nearly did that.” They can easily visualise (and in a way relive) how they could have won the gold. Instead of focusing on the win, they feel like they lost. Bronze medalists can picture not winning a medal as an alternative. Therefore, for them, third place is a win.

What can we pick as more positive and uplifting reference points?

Define What Success Means to You

We tend to always push to look at the “people who came first” as the ultimate goal. This is accentuated by the current use of social media, compared with the showreel we are presented daily.

When writing my book, Reclaim your Time Off, I realised how hard we made it for ourselves to achieve success on a daily basis. 

Do you ever feel accomplished at the end of one given day? How do you feel when you know that your day has been successful? For so many people, it is hard these days to fully quantify what a successful day means.

How can we overcome the envy of not getting first?

By reframing success, we can acknowledge how, by going through a challenge, entering a competition, achieving a goal, we became better than when we were started. Instead of using the destination as our reference point, we can use the journey that got us there.

What about the lessons you can learn from the journey? How did these influence you?

Fall in love with the journey so that you can surrender to the outcome.

As a final reminder, embrace success in all of its forms

  1. Choose your comparison metrics carefully to reframe your success and create daily practices rooted in happiness
  2. Set daily reminders of your accomplishments and celebrate smaller achievements to set winning habits
  3. Create better boundaries not to let comparison and external influencers weigh on your self-esteem

Happy people frame things in a way that they can sustain their happiness, so it’s time you find better reference points for a happier life. Be like a bronze medalist and quit the comparison habit.

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