Cass Sunstein:

Research suggests that in the Olympics, those who finish third are likely to be a lot happier than those who finish second. The reason is that much of our thinking is based on counterfactuals. We like to ask: What else could have happened?

If you finish second, you tend to think that with a little good luck, or maybe a bit of extra effort or skill, you might have gotten the prize of a lifetime: Olympic gold. But if you finish third, you tend to think that with a little bad luck, or without that extra effort or skill, you wouldn’t have gotten the prize of a lifetime: an Olympic medal.

My boss and I were on a road trip yesterday, getting some new equipment activated. He was interested to hear all about the world of bookselling, and the conversation naturally turned toward reading for personal enjoyment. “You know, Damian, I used to love reading, but…” He shook his head. “Y’know, you get married, then the kids come along… most days, I get home in the evenings, eat dinner, play with the kids. I try to grab at least 15-20 minutes of actual conversation with my wife, and then, if I open a book before bed, it’s like five minutes, and BOOM.” He closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest.

He told me about his former job, working for a global shipping company in New York, how cool it was to have to look up all these faraway cities he’d never heard of and see them on a map. “One day, Damian, one day…!” he said, pointing upward with a determined look, “I’m actually going to travel to these places. And I’m going to have time to read when I get back!” He said his wife fantasizes about being able to read a trashy magazine all the way through. “Just to be able to read a copy of US Weekly, uninterrupted; she wants that so bad. I say to her, don’t worry, in several years, they won’t want to have anything to do with us, and we’ll have time for that!”

We didn’t actually talk a whole lot, because he spent most of his time making and receiving calls, getting ready for this massive snowstorm that’s got me chillin’ at home in the middle of the day today. As we were getting off the exit to head back to base, he ended his last call and sighed. “ARRGH, these are the days I hate the most, Damian. Trying to keep tabs on 80 employees, trying to make contingency plans with dozens of clients for tomorrow, looking forward to getting my ass chewed in the next conference call…”

“That’s why I like having simple jobs,” I said.

“Yeah, not aging prematurely due to stress,” he said with a slightly forced laugh.

Anyway, yes, to return to the original point: my own experience confirms that setting your sights lower seems to lead to more genuine contentment. I’m fine with my metaphorical bronze medals.