And so the Olympic Games 2016 has come to an end. Seeing the happy faces of its champions is something that makes most of us feel pretty darn good. And at the same time, when I watch the winners and runners-up getting their medals, I am reminded of what I think of as “silver medal syndrome” – the way the human mind tends to respond to coming in what we see as second place.
I first became aware of this after hearing a talk at the Rubin Museum in NYC, where a scientist talked about research which had been carried out on the size of athletes’ smiles in accordance to their medal status. Logic might say that the athlete who wins the gold should have the biggest smile, followed by the silver-size smile, and the bronze-size smile. But it is not so. Findings show that yes, the gold smile is indeed the broadest: the gold winner has come first, achieved their goal, triumphed. And the bronze winner is pretty beamy, too, they’ve squeaked into the medals by a whisker and are relieved to get one at all. But the silver winner is often found to have a hint of anguish in their smile (and in fact, sometimes they’re not actually smiling at all); these are athletes who so nearly got the gold medal, and they just missed out on it.
The research has been written about in depth in the Scientific American and in the Guardian. From a yogic point of view, this is a great example of the clever ways our minds find to cheat ourselves of happiness. Most of us silver-medal ourselves all the time. We tend to think that success in life is a knowable thing, and assume that we know what something “working out” actually looks like – whether that’s a relationship, a job promotion, getting the apartment we were chasing, and so on. As if we can tell the future: “This is what would be best for me!” Even despite our repeated Phews through life! (“Thank goodness I got laid off / didn’t marry so-and-so / the ice-cream van ran out of soft-serve before I got to the counter” etc).
In the Olympic Games, the context is, of course, competitive and hierarchical – there is a clearly defined winner who receives a prize that everyone agrees is the best prize. And oh, it is tempting to think that success in our own life experience is similarly measurable. As I get closer and closer to the end of my 30s, the part of my goal-driven, whip-cracking mind keeps presenting me with opportunities to have not won the gold medal: “I am nearly 40 and I don’t have the regular gold medal things, like a spouse, kids or my own house”. But then the quiet, knowing part of me shrugs and smiles and says, “Well Sophie, how about traveling around the world, loving with all your heart and being loved, laughing so much that you’ve fallen off the sofa, finding peace on the top of a mountain? How do you feel about that?”
Then I find that not only do my feelings on these achievements run pretty fluid, the very idea of success itself – of triumphing – begins to get hazy. What is winning? Does any of us really want more than happiness, whatever that looks like?
This is the part of my knowing that I trust. Through my years of practicing yoga and meditation, I recognize it as coming from a wide and wordless knowing, rather than a pre-programmed cycle of mind-yapping. It feels like a friend, when it shows up.
I’m sharing this with you because I’m pretty sure that if I have lived with silver-medalling myself, you probably do, too. I find it really helpful to come across obvious, almost cartoonish examples of subtle human behaviors in the outer world – like the medal ceremonies where silver medal winners are grimacing not grinning.
When we fixate on a rigid goal, we run the risk of blocking out all the zillion other potential sources of joy that are happening all around us. When we start releasing our mind’s gripping, we make room to be grateful, for very simple things (like birdsong, or, hey, breathing!).
This is not to say, don’t try to achieve a heartfelt goal. By all means, go for it! But staying open to other outcomes being equally good is also a highway to happiness. It’s one of the basic messages of the Bhaghavad Gita – to do one’s dharma and take action without being attached to the fruit of that action. Ooh, it’s hard! But staying spacious creates a whole big room in the home of your heart for a wonderful, totally unexpected party to happen.