A happiness expert explains why a ‘bronze lining’ makes you happier than a silver one


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Back in high school, I spent my weekends playing travel volleyball. My team had a knack for coming in second, and over time, the silver medals really grated on my self-esteem. Years later, I finally understand the psychological reason why always being the runner-up (oh, how to phrase it…) sucks. According to 20th century psychologist William James, coming in second rarely feels good. For the sake of your happiness, it’s oh-so-much better to come in third.

In his seminal work, The Principles of PsychologyJames theorized that what someone accomplishes matters less to them than how they perceive said accomplishments, reports Scientific American. For example, you may be stoked that you’re finally able to afford your own studio apartment, until you learn that a close friend recently moved into a one-bedroom. On the The Happiness Lab podcast, which is hosted by Laurie Santos, PhD, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, gives an Olympic example.

Dr. Santos interviews Thomas Gilovich, PhD, a professor of Psychology at Cornell University, who—after observing that Olympic silver medalists tend to take their losses harder than those awarded the bronze—conducted his own experiment to study the psychology of coming in second and third. After screening footage of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Dr. Gilovich asked students to rank the facial expressions of the swimmers on a scale of 1 (miserable) to 10 (very happy). Overall, the bronze medalists facial expressions were happier than those who placed silver. In fact, second-placers were pretty, well, miserable.

“We simulate alternative reality and react to events, not just in terms of what happened, but what those simulations tell us might have happened, easily could have happened, almost happened,” explains Dr. Gilovich. Silver medalists are so close to coming in first that they can almost (just nearly!) taste victory; those who collect a bronze medal are just happy to be standing on the podium.

Even those of us who won’t be swimming in the next Olympic games can learn a lesson here. First, that comparing yourself to others is a toxic, toxic games. And second, that exceeding your expectations of yourself—rather than those around you—may just be the key to happiness. We’ll call it “the bronze lining.”

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