When silver is worse than bronze: the cognitive errors that make successful people unhappy

I had everything a man could want…. I was a millionaire. I had beautiful women in my life. I had cars, a house, an incredible solid gold career and a future. And yet on a daily basis I wanted to commit suicide.

Eric Clapton was one of the most successful rock stars on the planet. He had it all and he was miserable. And he’s not alone.

You could probably name a dozen actors, musicians, sports stars and billionaires who are deeply unhappy despite being among the elite in their field.

We might wonder how such successful people can be so unhappy.

It’s tempting to think that we are somehow different; if I were in their shoes I would be happy. But there’s no evidence that highly successful people are inherently more vulnerable to discontentment and depression than the rest of us. We’re all subject to the same faulty beliefs and errors of judgment that can lead to unhappiness.

This article explains the main culprits.

Comparison and adjustment

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

It’s human nature to compare. We use other people as reference points to decide whether we are satisfied with our selves, our accomplishments and possessions. Unfortunately this compulsion to compare can lead to some perverse outcomes.

For example, while objectively it’s obvious that coming second in a race is better than coming third, research on the facial expressions of medallists at the 2012 Olympics found that for the athletes themselves this wasn’t the case.

While the gold medallists appeared happiest, the silver medallists on average appeared less happy than the bronze medallists. Why? They were comparing against different reference points. Many of the silver medallists were disappointed to miss out on gold, whereas the bronze medallists were just happy to win a medal at all.

As this example suggests, the reference points we use for measuring outcomes we care about are not static. The research shows we adjust to each new life event until it is just the new normal. This is the law of hedonic adaptation.

Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.

Ecclesiastes 5:10

After awhile my fancy new car is just my car; my exciting new job, just my job. And the new normal becomes the reference point for raised expectations in the future.

What’s more, the law of diminishing sensitivity applies to external rewards like money and fame: like a drug, the more you get the more you need to achieve the same level of satisfaction.


As a Beatle we made it and there was nothing to do. We had money, we had fame, and yet there was no joy.

– John Lennon

Research by psychologists Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson indicates that people have a poor understanding of what they need to be happy. Their studies show that we make choices – to work hard for advancement, buy a big house and make a name for ourselves – based on an intuition that these things will make us happy. But changes in life circumstances have a much smaller impact on happiness than we expect.

This error is caused by a focusing illusion: when we think about how an event will affect our future happiness we focus too much on the the event and overlook the main causes of well being, things like genetic predisposition, living in a democratic country, having a healthy life expectancy and social support. And we ignore the law of hedonic adaptation.

Gilbert and Wilson coined the term ‘miswanting’ to describe the poor choices people make as a result of errors in predicting what will make them happy in the future.

Another cause of miswanting is a tendency to value the remembering self over the experiencing self. I write about that here. Serena Williams’s comments about tennis during the 2012 Australian Open encapsulate this point:

It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love; I’ve actually never liked sports, and I’ve never understood how I became an athlete. And I don’t like working out; I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically.

These words suggest that Serena Williams became an athlete because it was important to her remembering self to become a champion and this overrode her experiencing self’s dislike of playing sport.

Successful people who hate what they do must want to win so badly they are willing to endure endless pressure filled, lonely and exhausting days to get there and stay there – hardly a recipe for happiness.

All things considered it’s not surprising so many successful people are unhappy.

And maybe next time you catch yourself envying a highly successful person you might remember that underneath they might not be any happier than you after all.


Author: Rachel Linton

Psychologist, reader, writer from Sydney, Australia. On this blog I write about ideas from leading thinkers in a relatable way for our time. Enjoy xx

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