Monday, October 6, 2008

Happiness in Bigger Loss

As I mentioned in my previous post, I ran a 5K this weekend - the Hoosier's Outrun Cancer. Bloomington hosts several long distance running races round the year; the Hoosier's Outrun Cancer is one of the big events - this year the number of participants was over 5000. I was not sure I would do well in the race, because of not having got enough training, but I did pretty well in terms of time. In fact, I made a personal record by finishing the five kilometers in 20 minutes 56 seconds (as per my stopwatch***) - my best time so far. Looks like Hapkido still gives me enough exercise to keep me in shape.
Anyway, you would expect me to have been very happy with my performance. But was I? No. Why? Well, another runner overtook me just before the finish line; even though I tried very hard I could not beat this guy; the worst thing was that he was running with a stroller. Later, I walked up to the unofficial results board - it looked like I had finished fourth in my age group, meaning that I had just missed the opportunity to be on the medal stand. That was another upset.
Let me take a quick detour here and share some interesting research that has been done in social psychology on such events. Conventional wisdom dictates that the person winning the gold would be happiest, followed by the person winning the silver, and then the bronze medalist. However, a series of creative experiments by Medvec and his colleagues showed that Olympic bronze medal winners were happier than the silver medal winners. I won't go into the details of these experiments, but if you rethink the matter, you would realize that the results actually make sense; the silver medalist is not very happy because he missed the gold, but the bronze medalist - despite having lost to the gold and silver medalists - is happy because he at least made it to the medal stand. Going by this logic, who do you think would be the unhappiest athlete? I think we'll all bet on the person who stood fourth, because he just missed getting any medal.
Am I being a disgruntled loser here? No. In fact, the 5K of this weekend has a happy ending. Today morning the organizers posted the official results on their website, and I learnt that I had actually finished seventh in my age group and not fourth. That would be a consolation, wouldn't you say? Strange as it sounds, having more people between you and the medal can actually be good consolation - you don't feel like you just missed the medal anymore, and so can focus your attention elsewhere. Now I can enjoy my personal record better; I can feel happy that I was within the top 100 overall finishers - 82nd to be precise. "So what I lost to the man with the stroller; I at least gave my best try."

*** My official time was 21:07. However, I do not consider it to be accurate, because the race organizers were manually scanning the time chips way after the finish line. I and most other runners didn't notice that and just stopped running at the finish line. Anyway, even 21:07 would be a personal record because my previous personal best for a 5K was 21:39.

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