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The Surprising Benefits of Coming in Second Place

The Surprising Benefits of Coming in Second Place

Researchers found that Olympic silver medalists lived longer and earned more than gold medalists, which begs the question of what matters: your success, or how you respond to it.


by Rebecca Muller, Editorial Fellow at Thrive Global

George Mdivanian / EyeEm/ Getty Images
Everyone loves the rewarding feeling of achieving a goal, but as it turns out, coming up short may not be such a bad alternative. In fact, it may even help you live longer. According to a University of Virginia study published in the Journal of Health Economics, Olympic silver medalists tend to live longer and earn more than gold medalists, which has prompted researchers to investigate what happens after the big win, and why second-place athletes are prospering later in life.

The researchers compared the mortality between Gold and Silver medalists in Olympic Track and Field between 1896 and 1948, and ultimately found a resounding trend in the financial outcomes of the athletes observed. The study found that about half of silver medalists were alive at age 80, compared to only a third of gold medalists. But they also found that second-place athletes pursued higher-paying occupations after the Olympics, while first-place winners went onto lower-paying pursuits. Particularly, 70 percent of silver medalists saw greater financial outcomes, while only 20 percent of gold medalists did the same.

Study author Adam Leive points out that while the Olympians who came in first and second place weren’t very different from another in terms of physical and neurological factors, the silver medalists became more successful after their Olympic careers, which could have contributed to their longer life spans. “The pursuit of victory may harm health,” he explains. “Time spent working may crowd out labor inputs to health.” He also says that after the taxing efforts of winning a gold medal, athletes were not particularly motivated to find more success and take care of themselves. “Winning may affect future motivation and thereby influence real resources and health,” he notes.

The athletes’ financial outcomes may have affected their long-term health, but there are other impactful lifestyle choices that come from responding to a success or failure. “Disentangling the relationship between achievement and health is challenging because several channels may operate simultaneously,” says Leive. “How people respond to success or failure in pivotal life events may produce long-lasting consequences for health,” he explains.

Although we tend to assume success in our careers would only help us later on, Leive says in this case, coming in first could actually hinder your trajectory after the win. And while we’re still planning to aim high, the study’s findings serve as a reminder that if you do come in second, there’s no need to be so hard on yourself. At the end of the day, what you do after your success or failure is more telling than the outcome itself.

(Thrive Global)

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