How much you value silver and bronze medals can offer clues about your happiness, according to a new study.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated August 09, 2016
Olympic bronze medal, Rio 2016
Credit: Handout/Getty Images

Who do you think should be the real winner of the Olympic Games: the country with the most gold medals, or the country with the most medals overall? How you answer that question may provide a clue about how happy you are, says a new study.

Happy people value silver and bronze medals more than unhappy people, say researchers from the Center for Happiness Studies at the University of Seoul in South Korea. Because of that, they tend to celebrate second and third place finishers more—and to prefer the “total-medal method” for ranking countries in the Olympics, rather than the “gold-first method.”

This makes sense, say the study authors, since previous research has shown that happy people tend to appreciate and find joy in the “little things” in life. But since there hasn’t been much research about how happy and unhappy people value societal events (as opposed to personal events), they wanted to test their hypothesis—using the Olympics as a theoretical scenario.

The researchers recruited South Korean and American participants, and gave them questionnaires to determine their overall self-perceived happiness. Then they asked them about Olympic medals: In one experiment, the South Korean group was asked about how countries’ medal counts should be ranked (gold only versus all medals). In two additional experiments, both groups were asked how many silver and bronze medals they thought equalled one gold medal.

In the first experiment, people with higher happiness scores were more likely to favor the total-medal method for country rankings, while those who scored lower tended to think that gold medals should be the deciding factor.

In the second two experiments, participants who scored higher on the happiness scale also tended to give more weight to silver and bronze medals. This pattern existed in both groups, suggesting that the association between happiness and medal preference is the same across different cultures.

On average, study participants who saw themselves as happy estimated that it would take 2.68 silver medals to equal a gold one. Self-perceived unhappy people, on the other hand, though it would take 4.14.

The study couldn’t show why happy people appreciate bronze and silver medals more, but the researchers have a theory. Previous studies have shown that happy people tend to group things together, they say—and this is just another example of that.

“This finding implies that happy people, compared to unhappy people, tend to group gold, silver, and bronze medals together into an inclusive category (‘achievement’) and treat them equally,” they wrote in the study. “Conversely, unhappy individuals might discriminate among the medals more and group them separately into three hierarchically distinct categories of gold, silver, and bronze medals.”

The study, which will be published in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and was posted early online, looked at happiness and medal valuation from a spectator perspective.

Previous research that’s looked at happiness from an athlete perspective suggests another interesting pattern: Olympians who win bronze medals tend to seem happier than those who win silver, they say. After all, the second-place finisher just narrowly missed the top spot, while the person in third place is happy to be on the podium at all.