Why Happier People Cheer for Bronze, Too

After the 100-meter freestyle in Athens in 2004, Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe flashes bronze — and a gold-medal-worthy smile.

Source Al Bello/Getty

Why you should care

Because new research says the underdog actually always wins.

Fangirl Amanda Thompson leaped for joy when her hero crossed the finish line to clinch the 100-meter dash at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But unlike the rest of the crowd, she wasn’t cheering for Usain Bolt, the immortalized messiah of track. The winner in her mind was instead Andre De Grasse, the Canadian star sprinter. Aka, Mr. Bronze Medal. Thompson always roots for David over Goliath — the kid versus the king — even when mighty Goliath seizes first prize. “A gold medal is not the only determinant of success,” says Thompson.

Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Shakur Stevenson have been hungry for gold throughout this Olympics season — and so too are the spectators lining up to support them. However, according to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, you ought to pay more attention to the runners-up.

Happier people celebrate silver and bronze medal winners, too — not just gold.

So says Seoul National University Psychology professor Jongan Choi, the co-author of the study. Happy people, Choi says, “savor small but frequent positive events, rather than large but infrequent positive events.” In other words, you can lift your spirits by cheering on all accomplishments during the Olympics and beyond, no matter if it’s third or 33th place. And it’s not too late: There’s still women’s and men’s boxing before the closing ceremony today, so get ready to start whooping and hollering.

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American Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad celebrates her bronze medal at the Rio Olympics.

Source Tom Pennington/Getty

Happiness is difficult to measure, so the researchers at Seoul National University conducted two different experiments involving a group of 106 Korean undergraduate students and another group of 230 Americans who all self-reported their level of happiness using the Subjective Well-Being Scale and the Satisfaction with Life Scale — two of the most common ways to assess happiness in psychology. They weighed whether gold medals or all medals made a country more successful in the Olympics. Moreover, they were asked to determine how many silver medals are equal to one gold medal, how many bronze medals are equal to one gold medal and so on. Sounds tedious, but Choi found that people like Thompson derive happiness from smaller accomplishments, instead of bigger, win-or-die contests. 

Of course, these findings could cheapen the value of gold in the eyes of some (say, the gold medal winner and her mom), perhaps taking away from the incredible feats of the first-place winners — like shooter Hoang Xuan Vinh, who secured Vietnam’s first-ever Olympic gold medal. Plus, the study results might hold greater sway if the sample size were larger and more diverse, beyond just Americans and Koreans. But the study remains true to the core ideals of sportsmanship: This year’s Olympics isn’t just the Neymar show or the Serge Gnabry show; it’s also the Aly Raisman show and the Ryan Lochte show. Nicole Tebbutt, an international sport volunteer who’s been following the Olympics from Vancouver, revels in “seeing someone that no one expected do great things.”

You’ll never know what’ll happen in a big sporting bash like the Olympics. Take, for example, Singapore’s Joseph Schooling, who upstaged Phelps. Or the Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller, who dove over the 400-meter finish line. As it turns out, the underdog always wins, gold or no gold.

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