How you Frame Things Matters
Most of you have probably seen this picture of U.S. gymnast McKayla Maroney after winning a silver medal in the vault competition at the 2012 Olympics in London. She doesn’t look very happy, does she?
Her emotions were probably due to counterfactual thinking. This is when our brain creates an alternate scenario to help us evaluate and make sense of what really happened. Comparing the actual outcome of an event to what might have happened can determine how we feel about the event, whether we see it as fortunate or unfortunate.
In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor gives a good example of counterfactual thinking. Imagine you are in a bank when a robber walks in. You are the only person injured in the incident, shot in the arm. Depending on how you frame what happened you will either feel extremely fortunate that you were only shot in the arm or terribly unlucky to have been in the bank at the time and to have be the only person wounded.
So back to the Olympics. The counterfactual thought for most silver medalists is likely that they almost won the gold, whereas the counterfactual thought for most bronze medalist is that they almost didn’t win a medal at all. This explains why bronze medalists, who are objectively worse off than silver medalists, often appear happier.
According to research bronze medal winners are happier than silver medal winners. After watching videos of the medal ceremonies and the faces of athletes right after they announced the winners at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, people were asked to rate the happiness of the athletes on a 1-to-10 scale with 1 being “agony” and 10 being “ecstasy”. Silver medalists scored 4.8 on the happiness scale after the announcement of the winner and 4.3 at the medal ceremony. Bronze medalists scored 7.1 and 5.7, respectively. According to both differences bronze medalists were significantly happier than silver medalists.
It is up to you to choose your counterfactual thoughts. Frame what happens in your life in a way that will keep you positive. There is always a bright side!