The Olympic Secret of Happiness


I kick off my keynote workshops with the following question: After the gold medal winner, who is happier at the Olympics? The silver medal winner or the bronze medal winner? Then I draw out responses from the audience. Some pick the silver medal winner. Some pick the bronze. Occasionally someone chooses the coach or even the audience. One participant recently shouted out, “The sponsors!”

The correct answer is the bronze medal winner tends to be happier than the silver medal winner, according to research conducted in 1995. When I ask the audience why they think this might be; they always understand the answer. The silver medal winner can taste the gold she missed. She is thinking, “No, no, no. I missed.”

Meanwhile, the bronze medal winner is clinging for dear life to his medal as if it was the edge of a cliff overlooking the abyss of Nobody-hood. He is thinking, “Oh thank God I made it. I almost missed out on a medal, but at least I’m an Olympic medalist.” This is the secret of happiness…

The Secret of Happiness on Display at the Rink
The question takes on a whole new meaning, thanks to the Salt Lake City Olympics. In case you were hibernating when the big scandal hit the news, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier skated the perfect pairs program. The Canadian pair was flawless and they knew it. The crowd cheered: “SIX! SIX! SIX!” The television commentators gave them the gold medal. But the judges gave the gold to the Russian pair.

Thunk! That is the sound of Salé’s and Pelletier’s expectations hitting the floor. Oh sure, they showed class, rejoicing in the success of their flawless performance and telling the world how proud they were of their silver medal. But if athletes who earn their silver medals with silver medal performances are somewhat disappointed, how much more so were Salé and Pelletier who knew they had earned solid gold?

Meanwhile, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo skated to a triumphant bronze—triumphant because it was the first time ever that China picked up an Olympic medal of any color in pairs figure skating. So if bronze medal winners normally feel grateful and relieved for their medal, these two heroes felt pure joy sending their country into the medal circle for the first time?

This strange coincidence of events illustrates even more dramatically than usual that bronze medal winners tend to feel more happiness than silver medal winners. But this same turn of events obscures the reason why this is so.

Manage Your Expectations of Success for Maximum Happiness
The point I make with the question up front is that we can measure our daily happiness, and to some degree control it, by the yardsticks we use as measurements. That’s the secret of happiness. The unusual reasons to celebrate bronze and sulk over silver this year should not obscure the lesson for the rest of us.

Olympic-Style Happiness
As in the Olympics, there are gold, silver, and bronze medals in daily life. Gold is absolute success, like when you land the big contract that will keep your company afloat for several years to come. Or when you score a prom date with the homecoming queen, or when your child comes home with straight As on his report card.

The silver medal is nothing to turn up your nose at, though. It is still success: another contract that will keep business humming happily along; a date with another lovely lady (whom the judges mistakenly failed to name homecoming queen, perhaps?); or a full set of fairly good marks on your child’s report card.

Bronze medals come in every situation, as well. It may not be much, but it is a contract. At least you have a date. And your child passed every subject. Each is an example of success, too.

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