How psyched would you be to win an Olympic medal? Pretty darn psyched, right? That’s probably because you have no shot at ever getting one.
As the camera pans the podium at the end of an event in London, there’s a good chance you’ll see something like this: a beaming gold medalist, waving, mouthing the words to her nation’s anthem; a bronze-winner who’s obviously thrilled to be there; and a shiny silver medal hanging from the neck of someone who looks like she’d rather be just about anywhere else right now. Think McKayla Maroney after the vault on Sunday. Or a crestfallen Viktoria Komova after last week’s gymnastics all-around.
Chalk it up to “counterfactual thinking,” explains psychologist Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University. In his oft-cited 1995 study, Gilovich and his collaborators investigated how happy silver medalists seemed after their events. In a nutshell: not so happy. The problem, he writes, is that counterfactual thinking—imagining the past as it might have been, in a chorus of coulda-woulda-shouldas—can make you downright glum even at a time of great accomplishment.
“The way we evaluate things depends on our reference point,” says University of Texas professor and YouBeauty Psychology Advisor Art Markman, Ph.D. “When you lose, you spend a lot of time thinking about everything you could have done differently that might have allowed you to win. It makes the silver-medal experience disappointing.”
At the awards ceremony, when the whole world is focused on honoring three of the greatest athletes on the planet, the silver medalist might look up the podium and think, that could have been me. Instead of reveling in the positive, she wallows in negative thoughts, fixated on the tenth-of-a-point, the millisecond, the wobbly landing that kept her from the ultimate dream. Meanwhile, a bronze medalist can picture the field behind her and say, I could have had nothing, but here I am!
Sometimes, Markman points out, it’s probably easier to lose by a lot: “If Usain Bolt torches you in the 100-meter, I’m not sure you’re going to feel quite as awful.” In other words, when you’re going up against the fastest man alive, your expectations might be different.
And that, Markman says, is the key to feeling good about doing well—even if you conceivably could have done better. “You have to be willing to define success in a way that is realistic,” he advises. “Setting your sights high can be extremely motivating, but at some point you have to step back and say, ‘I had this goal, and a didn’t reach it, but let’s face it, this was a remarkable accomplishment.’”
Most importantly, he adds, don’t let fear of failure keep you from trying. Markman believes that as we are faced with decisions to act or not act, we should all take what he calls a backward perspective on life. “Imagine looking back at your life as an old person,” he says. “People regret the things they could have done and didn’t do, the actions they didn’t take. An Olympic athlete might not win, but she got to be an Olympic athlete and that’s pretty amazing.”