The Washington Post's always-interesting "Department of Human Behavior" column has a great article today called "Happiness on the Medal Stand? It's as Simple as 1-3-2." Basically, the article notes that people who win Bronze medals at the Olympics tend to be much happier than the people who win Silver. The Silver medalists are caught up in "if only..." thinking (e.g. "If only I'd gone a little faster... jumped a little higher... tried a little harder"), while the Bronze medalists are just happy and grateful to be on the medal stand. In one study of Judo competitors, researchers found that Silver medalists were about as happy as those athletes in 5th place, while the Bronze medalists were about as happy as those who had won the gold.
Of course, this spills over into the life of us mere mortals, as well. So many of our moments of unhappiness come when we jump into "if only..." thinking: if only I had that job, that house, that spouse, those kids, that body, that money...
All of those self-help gurus who tell us that gratitude is a key to happiness aren't as cliche as we might think. This is where philanthropy and volunteering can come in. If you are not a person who automatically thinks about how lucky you are to have what you have, volunteering with those in need can really put things in perspective.
When I was volunteering at Georgetown Hospital last week, one of the cancer patients I was talking to said "My wish for you is that you never have to be at this hospital like the rest of us (fighting cancer)."
I'll take a Bronze medal any day.