Why Third Place Makes You Happier

2 Jan

One Olympian finished in second place.
Another Olympian finished in third place.

And the third place finisher is happier.


Because silver medalists focus on how close they came to winning it all – getting gold – while bronze medalists tend to focus on how close they were to not winning a medal at all.  One medalist ends up discontent that he/she didn’t win it all.  The other medalist is delighted to be on the medal stand at all.

How we feel isn’t determined by circumstances.  It is perceptual.  That is why concentration camp survivors often mention that everything was taken away from them except their ability to feel and how they would respond to their circumstances.

My Choose Joy resolution has nothing to do with striving for perfection or trying to change my circumstances.

In strength training, there is a principle called super-compensation.  The more a muscle is broken down, the stronger it rebuilds.  That’s why you very rarely re-break a bone in the same place you broke it the first time, because the bone is rebuilt stronger and thicker the second time  (obviously, this is why you rest after strength training and wear a cast after breaking a bone – because there is a period of vulnerability and weakness.)

As I look back over the past year, I can see a lot of bones breaking and muscles tearing and I can create a nice visual timeline of the highs and lows (mostly lows and lower lows) that I experienced. But when I begin reframing the problem, I see just how much stronger a person I am now. (It’s sad but I’m pretty sure I sent about  15 emails stating “this is the worst day ever” and actually believing that truth.  And then each “worst day” was somehow much worse, laughably worse, but thankfully survivable.)

I am ready to see the principle of super-compensation in the area of joy.  I have experienced sadness and grief and disillusionment and disappointment but I have been rebuilt, laughed in the midst of pain, rejoiced with others in the midst of personal struggles.

The phrase “rising above it” irks me. Some people, were I to find myself in the Paris sewers (ala La Miserable) would advise me to rise above it. I think they usually mean I should achieve some Zen attitude which will allow me to waltz onward with visions of hammocks-swinging-in-the-breeze-under-a-shaded-palm-tree bliss.  Or maybe they expect me to say “Beam me up, Scotty” and literally rise above it?  Who knows.

What I know is that when you’re walking through sewage, no matter what you think about, you will still smell sewage.  Heck, you will still smell of sewage, too.  I can’t rise above that. But I can push through and press on and finish.  Maybe I’ll finish first, or second, or even third (in which case my initial analogy falls apart – I’d be MUCH happier coming in 2nd place in the escaping-sewage-race than 3rd place!). But I will finish.  And I will not shower and change and then look for joy.

I will begin the joy-hunt even while still in the sewers.

(Just as soon as I crochet that last sentence on a pillow and sell it on Etsy.)




One Response to “Why Third Place Makes You Happier”

  1. Susanna Celso January 3, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

    Love it

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