Can Less Be More?
By Lauren Mahoney
We often believe that if we can change our circumstances, we will be much happier. We want more money, more time, a nicer car. This is due to our constant, yet often unconscious, creation of upward comparisons. We compare our lives to others, or an unattained standard we wish we had reached; this is a simple way to ensure that we will never be as happy as we could be.
Sports games are a common breeding ground for upward comparisons and complaints. As an Intramural Sports Supervisor at my university, I oversee games and determine team sportsmanship ratings. The championship basketball game is always the most competitive, and this held true under my supervision. The losing team looked miserable after, even while receiving their second place shirts and being congratulated on making it so far.
The Social Comparison Theory recognizes this as making an upwards comparison towards “what could have been”, instead of recognizing how much they had accomplished. Because they had just played the championship game, they were comparing themselves to the team they had just played, and found that they had done worse, leading to these negative thoughts even in the midst of what should have still been an overall happy occasion. They were the second best team in the league, of dozens.
This idea directly correlates to a 1995 study done by Medvec et al., titled “When Less is More”. This study followed Olympic medalists’ reactions to their placements, through studying camera footage of their faces in the moments they discovered their placements, and TV networks’ interviews with them in the early minutes after.
They found that, contrary to popular belief, doing better does not actually guarantee more happiness. In fact, bronze medalists are likely to be happier than silver medalists even though they did not objectively do as well. They talk about how well they did, whereas silver medalists focus on what they did wrong and what they could have done differently to place first. This can be understood when looking at the ideas underlying the Social Comparison Theory, of our upwards and downwards comparisons.
Bronze medalists are making downward comparisons, looking at themselves compared to all the people who lost to them. They are extremely happy to have made it onto the podium; they edged out all the others to make it up there! In comparison, silver medalists are looking towards the gold medalists and making upwards comparisons, thinking about how much better it would be if they had won, instead of focusing the way the bronze medalists do on being happy to have placed as well as they did.
Going back to the example of the championship intramural game, the majority of the complaints I heard were made by the second place finishers, justifying why they had not won, and placing blame on members of the other team, a member of their own team who might have made a mistake, or the referees making a bad call. As Daniel Gilbert discussed in his TED Talk titled “Why We Make Bad Decisions”, our brains give losing much more attention than they give winning.
But we can change this. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky’s well studied pie chart suggests that our happiness is actually divided up into sections: 50% is genetics, 10% is circumstantial, and a whole 40% is made up of intentional activities that we control.
We must recognize that we have this control over our thoughts and comparisons, and consciously choose to exercise a positive mindset. We can choose to focus on what we have, what we’ve done right, and not the opposite. Our genetics are set, our circumstances are set, but what is not set is our reaction to these.
Medvec, Victoria Husted; Madey, Scott F.; Gilovich, Thomas
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 69(4), Oct 1995, 603-610. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1243
Lauren is currently a student at Santa Clara University, with a double major in Communication and Psychology. She enjoys beach sunsets, dogs, anything chocolate, and cuddling up with a good book. If it were up to her, she’d rescue every dog in every shelter, but it’s not, so she settles for giving extra love to her one rescue dog, Ava, who doesn’t seem to mind.