The reading of the winning votes reminded me of how psychological research (and anecdotal evidence) shows that third-place finishers are often happier than second-place finishers. Check out the faces of Natalie and Michelle if you want more confirmation:
This seems odd at first glance, since why would most people be happier at finishing lower? If you asked people outside a competition whether they’d rather finish second or third, almost everyone would probably chose second. But competitions are not decided beforehand (except in North Korea or my 6th grade class awards). The winners are not looking at the contest from a dispassionate outside context – they’re looking at it from within and judging their own performances.
A second-place finisher usually compares herself to the first-place winner and thinks about how she almost won everything, which makes her unhappy. In contrast, a third-place finisher compares herself to all the losing players who didn’t even get to the winners circle, which makes her happy. As the study in the link above states: “The authors attribute these results to the fact that the most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold, whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal.”
This gets at how our happiness is often relational. Greater “objective” success is usually less important to our happiness than how our success compares to the people around us. Or at least who we think are around us. Therefore, it doesn’t make most people feel better to know that by almost any comparison to past generations, we live in the healthiest, freest, most peaceful, and wealthiest time in human history (well, besides the current pandemic). Instead, most people compare themselves to the people who are actually around them (or at least the versions of those people that are in their heads), and their happiness is based on those comparisons. We’re not comparing ourselves to scurvy-ridden toothless peasants in the Middle Ages, we’re comparing ourselves to the handsome wealthy actors who we see on television. We can’t see those peasants. We can see the actors. But does happiness have to be this way? That’s a serious question for another time.
Until next season! (If it ever happens…)