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Happiness Is Cheering for the Bronze Medalist

New research finds happier people appreciate the achievements of the runners-up.

By Tom Jacobs


U.S. bobsledders Steven Holcomb and Steve Langton display their bronze medals during the Olympic two-man bobsled medal ceremony in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: The U.S. Army/Flickr)

The summer Olympics get underway this week, their fierce competitions capped by solemn medal ceremonies. As the winning athletes’ national anthem plays, some viewers will glance at the silver and bronze medal recipients and think, “How great for them.” Others will dismissively scoff: “Too bad. So near, yet so far.”

If you’re trying to get a sense of a potential romantic partner, newresearch suggests you should pay attention to which response they choose. If it’s the latter, you might want to think twice — unless one of the things you look for in a mate is chronic unhappiness.

“One’s happiness affects the way one perceives and appreciates ‘achievements’ or ‘successes’,” write psychologists Jongan Choi and Incheol Choi of Seoul National University. “Our study shows that happy spectators are less likely to devalue silver and bronze medals in relation to gold medals.”

In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers describe three experiments. The first featured 106 undergraduates at a South Korean university, who began by completing the Subjective Happiness Scale — a series of four questions designed to measure the extent to which you consider yourself a happy person.

They were then asked which is the better method for determining which nations are more successful at the Olympic Games: the total number of medals they receive, or the total number of gold medals? Participants who reported higher levels of happiness were more likely to prefer the total number of medals.

It bodes well for your future happiness if you can appreciate the accomplishments of the runners-up.

“Happy people, compared to unhappy people, tend to group gold, silver, and bronze medals together into an inclusive category (‘achievement’) and treat them equally,” the researchers write.

Another experiment featured 230 American residents, all of whom were recruited online. After filling out the aforementioned Subjective Happiness Scale, they were asked three questions: How many silver medals are equal to one medal in the Olympic games? How many bronze medals are equal to one gold? How many bronze medals are equal to one silver?

Confirming the results of a similar experiment that featured Korean students, “happy participants gave more weight to silver and bronze medals in relation to a gold medal than did unhappy participants,” the researchers report.

Combining the scores of the Korean and American participants, they found happy people estimated a gold medal as equal to 2.68 silver ones, whereas unhappy people felt it was worth 4.14 silver medals.

The results provide support for the “frequency-not-intensity principle of happiness.” It states that happier people take pleasure from numerous small events and accomplishments, rather than focusing on one big, all-or-nothing conquest.

“Happy people savor little things that occur frequently,” the researchers write, “whereas unhappy people strive for intense experiences that rarely occur.” Their study provides evidence that this difference in attitude “emerges even with respect to perceptions of Olympic medal values.”

So, by all means, root for the winners over the next two weeks. But it bodes well for your future happiness if you can appreciate the accomplishments of the runners-up.