Go for the Gold… or maybe the Bronze

What can the Olympic medal stand teach us about happiness?

With the 2018 Winter Olympics well underway, I’m reminded of a study I read years ago about the relative happiness of various medal winners.

The study was reported on in the Washington Post’s Department of Human Behavior column, written by Dr. Shankar Vedantam. You might recognize Dr. Vedantam’s name from National Public Radio’s Hidden Brain podcast and his commentaries on NPR shows like Morning Edition.

The article notes that people who win Bronze medals at the Olympics tend to be much happier than the people who win Silver. The Silver medalists are caught up in “if only…” thinking (If only I’d gone a little faster… jumped a little higher… tried a little harder), while the Bronze medalists are just happy and grateful to be on the medal stand.

In one study of Judo competitors, researchers found that Silver medalists were about as happy as those athletes in 5th place, while the Bronze medalists were about as happy as those who had won the Gold.

Of course, this lesson in happiness is not just limited to our Olympic superheroes, but spills over into the life of us mere mortals, as well. So many of our moments of unhappiness come when we jump into “if only…” thinking: if only I had that job, that house, that spouse, those kids, that body, that money…

All of those self-help gurus who tell us that gratitude is a key to happiness aren’t as cliche as we might think. This is where philanthropy and volunteering can come in – cultivating gratitude.

If you are not a person who automatically thinks about how lucky you are to have what you have, volunteering with those in need can put things in perspective. It can shift your thinking from “look what I lack” to “look what I have,” …or, better yet “look what I am able to give.”

The same goes for charitable donations; while you might feel powerless next to your wealthy friend or colleague (“if only” thinking rears its ugly head once again), making even a small donation to a cause you care about brings you back into your own power. After all, you are a philanthropist if you are giving $5, $50, or $5,000. You are choosing how to use your financial resources, and choosing to serve the greater good is an intentional, empowered decision.

In the Olympics, as in life, you can Go for the Gold, but you might be happier if you Go for the Bronze.

Originally published at

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