The thrill of victory! The agony of defeat!
Each night in my house, we tune in to watch the competition in the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, cheering on our American heroes. Winning a gold medal at the Olympics must be a pinnacle moment of pure joy in the life of an athlete who has worked so hard for many years.
Clearly, gold is great. But did you know that bronze medalists are actually happier than silver medalists? It’s surprising, but researchers who studied the facial expressions and self-reported satisfaction levels of Olympic medalists concluded that the joy of third-place far outpaces that of second place. In fact, bronze medalists were almost as happy as the gold medalists.
Why? Scientists point to a phenomenon called counterfactual thinking. Basically, this is our human tendency to imagine what might have been. For example, if you are in a minor car accident, you might think to yourself: “If only I had been paying closer attention, I wouldn’t be in this mess!” or, “Thank goodness it wasn’t worse! I could have been injured.”
Both are counterfactual thoughts. One imagines a better scenario and makes you feel irritated. The other envisions a worse outcome and makes you feel thankful.
The alternate reality for a bronze medalist is being left off the podium entirely. She may say to herself: “I did it! I got a medal.” For the silver medalist, however, it might have been gold: “If only I had done a little more, I might have won.”
As the theory goes, these very different mentalities account for the joy gap observed between second and third-place finishers.
What can we learn from this? The science of counterfactual thinking suggests that happiness is less dependent on our objective circumstances than on our thoughts about them. Our internal monologue can drag us into self-pity and envy, or it can orient us toward gratitude and humility.
We are each called to walk the Christian life with hope and joy. That is easy to do when you are on top of the world. But how to do it in less-than-golden circumstances?
Prayer can be a particularly good place to practice positive counterfactual thinking that cultivates the virtue of gratitude. I consider my own prayer habits. Sometimes my prayers become a litany of complaints and items that I wish God would fix. If the word “please” appears more frequently than “thank you” in my conversations with God, I know it is time to recalibrate.
You can probably imagine a more successful, fitter, more gregarious, more organized version of yourself. Can you also imagine life without the grace of God, without the sacraments, without the gifts and blessings you enjoy?
Rather than dwelling on “what if” and “if only,” I hope that each of us can offer thanks to God for being exactly where we are. In doing so, we can capture a share of that bronze-tinged joy.