Would You Rather Be Right or Would You Rather Be Happy?

The question I’m writing about today is an exceptionally important, and potentially valuable one, both in your relationships and for your career.

When I first heard this question perhaps fifteen years ago it initially truck me as something of a non sequitur. I thought “I can be both. In fact, when I’m right I am happy, and when I’m wrong I’m not.” What better proof was there than the $10,000 and the trip to Europe that I won on Jeopardy! ? Being right had made me happy. But as I observed a number of situations over the next few months, keeping this question in mind, I began to see that its implications had a profound core of truth.

Starting with the easiest examples to understand: if I love Mahler and hate rap, but you hate classical music but enjoy hip-hop, which of us is right? Jane Austen vs. James Joyce? Da Vinci vs. De Kooning? In the world of art there are no rights or wrongs, just different ways of self-expression that resonate differently with people depending on their individual preferences. Same with food: is vanilla ice cream better than chocolate? Or with pets: are dogs better than cats? Or, moving on to more “significant” topics, politics: are Democrats better than Republicans? Of course to you they might or might not be, but that doesn’t make you right, it only indicates your preference. Religion? Is Christianity better than Islam or Buddhism? Sexual orientation: is straight better than gay? Race: is Caucasian superior to Asian or African? So many topics of disagreement stem from our need to prove ourselves right, rather than accepting individual preferences and the fact that the world is painted primarily in shades of gray.

For many people, needing to be right is an indication of low self-esteem. If they can be proven correct it will validate their superiority (or, more emotionally accurately, their lack of inferiority). A perfect example of this has been recently provided by Donald Trump, who after expressing serious doubts about President Obama’s birthplace, now is claiming to be “right” because it was his pressure that forced the very proof provided by release of the “long-form” birth certificate. (I know about Donald Trump’s low self-esteem from an anecdote my brother told me. Trump was seated next to him at a charity benefit dinner, and immediately after introducing himself to my brother asked “Have you seen me on the cover of this week’s Newsweek?” Hardly the conduct of a self-assured individual).

There is a broader way of looking at today’s topic that I have come to utilize and that has brought me an immeasurable amount of happiness, namely that judgments that I make about what’s going on to me or around me often wind up creating unhappiness, and that if I am simply able to be with what is, I will be much more at peace. Example: if I’m caught in a traffic jam and am upset about it I’m in essence thinking to myself “It’s wrong that this is happening and I’m right to be frustrated.” How many times do you hear people complain about the weather: “It’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too humid?” How much better off they would be if they simply accepted what they can’t change, rather than make themselves unhappy about what’s not right about the weather.

Does this mean we should simply accept whatever is going on around us, even if it’s unfair, demeaning, or even damaging? Of course not. Nor does it mean simply agreeing with something you don’t believe. But if your spouse says “Why am I always the one who has to pick up after you” or “You always ignore me when I start to talk about our finances,” you don’t necessarily have to prove that she’s (or he’s) wrong by citing exceptions. You can tune into the fact that there’s a lot of frustration being felt, and do your best to address that, rather than who’s more right. Of course your spouse’s complaints are coming from that same place of needing to be right, but it only takes one to begin to shift the tone and substance of a disagreement. Similarly, if your boss criticizes you on what feels like unfair grounds you can choose to try to prove the boss wrong or look to your own behavior to see where you might improve, which has the potential for greater long-term happiness as you strengthen your performance, which will result in your boss starting to view you in a more positive light, with obvious benefits to your career.

Monitor Your Behavior

As this week progresses, monitor how many times you’re tempted to prove yourself right and see what impact that has on your happiness. Next week I’ll write about the difference between being someone who never disagrees with a contrary opinion or someone who acts like a doormat (NOT what I’m suggesting here) and someone who is able to calmly contemplate options for action that will be most personally beneficial.