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Reference point

You would expect the Gold medal winners at the Olympics to feel the happiest, followed by the silver medal winners and then the bronze medal winners. After all, they were ranked in that very order for their performance.

However, a study of the facial expressions of Olympic medal winners when they were standing on the podium showed that the Bronze medal winners were, on average, a lot happier than the silver medal winners. To the point where the silver medal winners were closer to feeling agony than happiness.

When psychologists analysed why this could be, they came up with the theory that the silver medal winners were so close to winning the gold that they were disappointed that they didn't actually win the gold. While the bronze medal winners were so close to not winning anything at all that they were quite happy about at least winning a medal.

Even though the silver medal winners were better off in absolute terms, their reference points were even higher, causing their unhappiness. The results were then replicated across various other scenarios - for instance, someone earning $100,000 a year at a company where the average salary was $300,000 a year was much less happier than someone earning $50,000 a year at a company where the average salary was $25,000 a year.

The reference point is something that we choose. Sometimes we do it consciously. But, quite often, we do it unconsciously. And this has such a huge bearing on how happy we feel. And other studies have linked happiness to longevity. So, by choosing an unfavourable reference point, we are actually condemning ourselves to earlier deaths!

That's something to think about.

This is the reason the stoic concept of negative visualization works so well. By visualizing the worst possible scenario that we could be in, we change our reference point such that we feel happier about our situation, no matter how bad it is in absolute terms.

At the same time, there is a flip side to it. Unless we have a high reference point, we can't push ourselves to be ambitious and to achieve more and to get better.

It's a trade-off decision that we need to make at all times.

So choose your reference point wisely.

(Hat-tip to Dr. Laurie Santos - check out her podcast, The Happiness Lab)

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