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Silver is worse than bronze

I don’t like to admit this,” says Mr. X., 70, the patriarch of a family business that manufactures machine parts, “especially in this pandemic when many people lost their jobs.”

“We are doing well, all things considered,” he continues. “Our profits are not as high as before, but we did not have to let go of anyone. My children stepped up, and I am relieved that if anything happens to me, the company will be in good hands. My health is not bad, and my wife says I have to be thankful.”

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“Your wife is a wise woman,” I say.

“But one thing is bugging me, and making me not sleep well,” says Mr. X. “I cut out what you wrote about happiness as a habit and finding meaning (‘A happy life,’ June 18; ‘Habits for a happy life,’ June 25; ‘A sense of purpose,’ July 2; ‘Pursue meaning rather than pleasure,’ July 9). What you wrote makes sense.”

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“The columns are online on the Inquirer site,” I say. “I am amazed that you are able to get the print version, given quarantine, but I am touched that you saved the columns. However, I don’t think you requested a video call just to tell me you like them. I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

“What makes me lie awake at night is the fact that our company, while well-known, is not No. 1,” says Mr. X. “We worked so hard for so long, and I thought that by now, we would be at the top.”

“You are still doing very well,” I say. “Your company helps your employees and provides an important service to the community. You have a sense of purpose. Isn’t that enough?”

“I try to convince myself that’s enough,” Mr. X says, “that’s why I reread your columns. But when I think about our competitor who is on top, I get envious. And peace of mind goes out the window.”

“This does not sound like ordinary envy,” I say. “I am trying to understand you more. So tell me if this makes sense: You sound like a student who already has an A grade but is still not happy because his A average is 95 while another classmate has 98.”

“Yes, that’s it!” Mr. X says. “My family business is already rated A, but I want to be ranked the highest A.”

I tell Mr. X about a study of winners in the 1992 Summer Olympics. Gold medalists are ecstatic, of course, but surpri­singly, bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists.

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On the surface, this makes no sense. Second place is objectively higher than third.

But “research on counterfactual thinking has shown that people’s emotional responses to events are influenced by their thoughts about ‘what might have been,’” say Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“The most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold,” they say, “whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal.”

The different reactions of the medalists depend on prior expectations. The silver medalists were going for the gold, and after the event, they compare themselves to gold medalists, so they feel that with a bit more effort or luck, they could have been in first place.

The bronze medalists also have expectations, but after the event, they compare themselves to those who finished in fourth place, and thus feel relieved that they at least made it to the medal stand.

“I definitely identify with the silver medalists,” says Mr. X. “But what do I do now?”

“You won’t like what the researchers recommend,” I say. “If you cannot win, they suggest that you might feel better by not trying or working too hard, and still come in second, but by a larger margin. Ease your efforts, relax a bit and enjoy life.”

“You are right, I don’t like it,” Mr. X says. “I cannot really enjoy life if I resign myself to not ever being on top. But now that I know my feelings are not horrible, that there are even studies to back them up, I feel better. I still hope to be the gold medalist though.”

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