Why Silver Medal Winners Oddly Appear So Upset

Cartoon of an olympic silver medalist frowning
Cartoon of an olympic silver medalist frowning

Image owned and created by Author in Midjourney AI

“Our minds are filled with a ton of little glitches that make it hard to enjoy the great things that we have.” — Dr. Laurie Santos

You’re 14, just starting out high school, and have some very big dreams. Every day you wake up and can only think of one thing — standing on the Olympic podium holding a delicious gold medal.

You know it’s not real gold. It’s 92.5% silver with only 6 grams of the real stuff coating the outside. But it doesn’t matter. It’s your dream. It’s your obsession.

Hell, the way you think about it every morning — it’s your destiny.

So imagine the disappointment after spending 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 6–10 years only to climb up that podium — and have to stop on the second step.

You are, le sad.

Smile for the camera!

It’s a regular occurrence for Olympic athletes. And if not the feeling of sadness, many studies of silver medalists’ facial expressions show they certainly aren’t as happy as those lucky gold medal winners.

Some studies looking at the 1992 and 2004 Olympics even point out that those measly bronze medal winners are much happier than the silvers!

The studies used a method called Facial Affect Coding System (FACS) to rate the expressions of medallists when their events finished and when on the podiums.

Interestingly, there are some studies of other races showing much less of a difference between silver and bronze — but they still showed le sad when compared to the beaming expressions of the gold winners.

It’s a bit weird to think of measuring happiness.

But whatever method is used to rate the happiness of gold, silver, and bronze winners — it’s clear none of them are as gleeful as the golden boys and girls standing up high.

But why, after being even the 2nd best in the entire world at something — and after almost 10,000 hours of training — could an individual appear almost unhappy on the podium?

Counterfactual thinking

The sad part is, this same feeling can perpetuate through all of us. Even way back in 1892, this effect was identified in studies by psychologist William James.

His analysis concluded the subjectiveness of our success can often matter more than the actual achievement.

It’s called counterfactual thinking, and we all do it from time to time.

  • Did you manage to get a B in an incredibly difficult class this year?

That’s great! Until you hear your good friend got an A. Especially when you thought she wasn’t as smart as you.

  • Maybe you got a huge raise this year and went out to celebrate?

That smile turned upside down when you found out Greg got an increase of double the amount, and clearly, double the respect.

It’s the same thing on the podium.

Subjectiveness is everything.

The silver medal winner was only ruminating about winning the gold medal, and nothing else.

“What could I have done differently during the race? Did the gold medal winner really deserve that? Maybe they cheated. Maybe I should’ve slept an extra hour or had a little more of that energy drink. I didn’t get the gold.”

“I failed.”

But the bronze medal winner? They’re often happier because they’re simply glad to be on the podium at all. They knew they weren’t going to get the gold. They went into it just being glad to participate in the top echelon of competition worldwide.

“I came here looking to do my best. The fact that I got onto the podium, ahead of thousands of global competitors? I win.”

“I succeeded.”

What can be done?

Knowing these thought processes are unavoidable can be a bit of a bummer. But don’t fret just yet, you simply have to remember to change your perspective when these good things do occur — and how to feel super grateful for them.

The happiness expert Dr. Laurie Santos recommends several ways to potentially combat this based on decades from other experts.

  1. Set aside time to be grateful for the good things you have in life — it can be something as little as having hot water, air conditioning, or even the ability to eat out at night (many people do this while meditating with great effect).
  2. Try not to compare yourself to others — focus instead on your past self or the effort you have put in on a task.
  3. Take occasional timeouts to imagine yourself lacking something good in your life — even if there are currently problems with it — what if you didn’t have a job? Your partner? Your house? etc
  4. Temporarily deprive yourself of a luxury you have — like taking the bus to work one day a month to increase your enjoyment of your car the rest of the time.

Wrap up

These are all just suggestions of what can be done, but the bottom line remains the same — being grateful for what you have in your life, your achievements, your possessions, and your health — can have drastic effects on your general outlook in life.

It’s important to take time to be proud, happy, and grateful for all that we have in our lives — even if we don’t feel like that at the time. By taking these timeouts to reflect, we can grow as humans and become happier over time.

So, the next time you negatively compare one of your achievements to someone else’s, just remember the old adage:

“One man’s trash is another’s treasure.”

And be grateful.


J.J. Pryor

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