If you can’t be First, try to be Third

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I came across a very interesting story the other day in a TED talk by Arthur Brooks on the topic of Earned Success. There has been a study that analyzed the facial expressions, emotions and reactions of people who came in 1st, 2nd and 3rd during sport competitions. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but the Gold medal winners were found to be the happiest. Surprisingly though, the Bronze medal winners were found to be more happy than the Silver medal winners… wait, what? Yes! Turned out that people ending up on the 3rd rank made people happier than being on the 2nd. 

What seems to be an paradoxical phenomenon is actually just the result of how our brains work. The person who came in 2nd will be comparing himself to the person on the 1st rank and feel disappointment for missing out on being first. He will probably have thoughts along the lines of “If only I had trained a bit more” or “I wish I didn’t go that fast into the curve”. He will automatically compare himself to the person above him instead of fully appreciating the fact that he came in 2nd. The 3rd person however knows that he barely made it onto that podium. He will look at all the other athletes who tried to end up in the group of the best three and feel lucky that he can be among them. Instead of comparing himself with the 1st and 2nd above him, he will most likely compare himself with the people beneath him and feel good about his achievement. 

Needless to say that this generalization doesn’t apply to all athletes, competitions or sports, but if you think about it, it’s fairly plausible and, again, proven through a study. As humans, we tend to compare ourselves with people who are better, who have achieved more, who are younger. We tend to look up and feel bad about ourselves as opposed to look down and appreciate what we have. If you have internet to access and read my blog right now, you already belong to those 2B people who do have internet as opposed to the other 5B who don’t. Most likely, you live in an industrialized country, have a well-paid job, health insurance, university education, a roof on top of your head, and access to water — “simple" (in our eyes) conditions that position you among the top 5% in the world. Yet too often we compare ourselves with people who have even more among that group of 5% as opposed to appreciating that we have more than the other 95%. I wish we all were more aware and appreciative of the incredible opportunities we have in our lives and took those opportunities to not move from Top 5% to Top 1%, but helped those other 95% make a respectful and modest living.