Editorial – Win, Lose, or Blah

The Olympics are coming to a close, and once more the drama of shocking wins and disappointing losses will fade away as we gear up for our more hectic fall and winter schedules. And yet there’s one thing that will stay with me for good, I think: the somewhat counterintuitive thought that sometimes, It’s better to lose than to win.

We’ve all heard the adage, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose; It’s how you play the game.” And while there’s plenty that could be said about sportsmanship and winning and losing with grace, I’m talking about something quite different.

Would you believe me if I said that third-place winners are happier than those who come in second? This NPR article describes a study which found just that. The reason, psychologists believe, is that while silver medalists compare themselves to those in first place, focussing on what they missed, bronze medalists unconsciously look to those who didn’t medal at all. In comparison, of course, the third-place winners are a huge success story!

Although the study was based on athletes competing in Olympic individual events, I think the idea extends far beyond the world of sports. In fact, It’s particularly intriguing to me as a non-Olympian.

If we were to see a second-place winner grousing about losing the chance for gold, we’d probably raise our eyebrows and point the poor-sport finger. Yet in our own non-athletic lives, we do it all the time.

It’s just a little less obvious. After all, in sports the delineation among first, second, third, and so on, are easy to spot and define. Other areas of life, however, are a bit more muddy and grey. And It’s in those murky trenches that lurks the bad sportsmanship we’d be so quick to criticize in others.

Have you ever felt piqued at someone else’s success—in spite of your better judgment? Does it annoy you just a bit when you learn about someone who’s had better luck? What about the driver whose strategy—or good fortune—just trumps yours enough that he maneuvers through the traffic or the yellow light before you get the chance to do so? What about the person in your life who slows you down or who keeps you from reaching the top?

Whether It’s a skewed modern worldview or a facet of our evolutionary biology, we seem hard-wired to seek the prime place. Coming in just short of gold, as it were, is hard to handle. In fact, we constantly compare ourselves to those around us. The thinner, the more fit, the richer, the younger, the better looking. The people with better promotions, greater financial stability, higher grades. The happier families. The folks who seem to have it all together.

But while we’re busy comparing, we’re refusing to acknowledge our own successes, small as they might be. We forget at how far we’ve come or, really, how much we actually have compared to others, whether our neighbours or across the world. Worse, we release negative energy: toward the winner, toward ourselves, and perhaps even toward whatever or whomever we see as responsible for our perceived loss or slight.

In life there are a lot of winners and a lot of non-winners. But there are also a lot of sour-faced second-placers. Perhaps we should transfer our focus on winning in life to a focus on winning in living. In a world brimming with a joyful nature and a peaceful attitude, I’d settle for a silver medal any day.

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