(photo credit: David W. Carmichael:. Image Source)
With the winter Olympics right around the corner, it causes us to reflect on past winners. Think back to the gold medalists in past Olympics, beaming with pride. But what about the other two? Did the bronze winner look… happier than the silver winner? If you noticed that, you aren’t alone. A 1995 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analyzed the medal winners of the 1992 Olympics and found that bronze medal winners tended to be happier than silver medal winners. The authors’ explanation of this was “counterfactual thinking,” that the Olympians were comparing what they had achieved to what might have happened otherwise. The silver medalists’ most likely counterfactual was having won gold, while the bronze medalists’ counterfactual was most likely not having won a medal at all.
Unfortunately, counterfactual thinking isn’t limited to just Olympic athletes. People experience it all the time, frequently when choosing what options to pursue in life and retirement. Ironically, having many options to choose from can decrease peoples’ happiness. In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz discusses how choice overload, a situation where people are overwhelmed when they are presented with many options, causes them to be less satisfied that they had made the best decision, forever wondering about the path not taken.
So, when choosing where to go to dinner, what kind of vacation to take, or how you’ll spend your retirement, what can you do to be happier with your decisions? Schwartz recommends satisficing rather than maximizing your choices. People who go with the option that meets the requirements of their situation tend to be happier than people attempting to find the very best option among their choices. Another recommendation is to curtail social comparison. No matter what decision you make, there’ll always be somebody who made a different choice who’s happier (or at least appears to be). If you’re comparing yourself to them, you’re going to be less happy with what you have, even if it meets all your decision criteria. Finally, he recommends practicing gratitude. If things have been going well for a while and something unfortunate happens, it’s easy to get very angry with your circumstances. But, if you take a breath and think about how grateful you are for your long-term situation, you can put this recent setback in context and still find happiness.