Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Is it better to be right or happy?

Almost 20 years ago, a new age aficionado I worked with loaned me a cassette tape she thought (hoped?) would "broaden my outlook on humanity".  The tape was a recording of a talk given by Christina Thomas, a teacher of A Course in Miracles, a self-study program of enlightenment.  I enjoyed it quite a bit but the one statement that struck me most was Thomas' assertion that, in life, you can choose to be right, or you can choose to be happy. the notion of getting rid of resentment as the route to happiness features quite broadly in A Course in Miracles and the many self-help movements it has birthed.

At 24, I thought this was complete hogwash and didn't see any reason why I couldn't be both right and happy. I also believed that it was bad luck to buy lottery tickets because it would be an affirmation that I wouldn't make my own millions, but that's another story. I returned the tape with thanks and, although the phrase didn't really leave my conscience, I didn't give it much thought for years.

Fast forward to 2011.  It's a day before my birthday and I'm convinced my husband has forgotten about it and I will be disappointed when it turns out to be a non-event instead of a celebration.  When I mentioned this to a mutual friend, he asked why I didn't just remind my forgetful husband of my impending anniversary and I launched into a rant about the fact that it's one day out of the whole year, it's important to me so it should be important to him, I've dropped numerous passive-aggressive hints he couldn't possibly miss.  I went on and on with variations on the popular female notion that, "if I have to remind him, then that takes the fun out of it".

After a few minutes of bewildered silence, my friend said, "You are setting him and yourself up for unhappiness and you need to ask yourself whether it's better to be right or to be happy."  Ah, that phrase again.  I left the conversation with that wounded sense of betrayal you feel when you bare your soul to someone expecting sympathy and you get rebuked instead.

But something about it stuck and when I was honest with myself, I knew my friend was right and I was the architect of my own misery.  My husband is an amazing guy who sometimes forgets things. Why did I so desperately need to "prove" this point?  The notion of being right versus happy gnawed at me over the ensuing months and I started to look for, and find, examples of it playing out all over society.  The estranged family member who realizes only after the death of an "enemy" that they no longer remembered what had driven them apart.  The politician who is willing to derail productive debate on an important issue because he's so focussed on his hatred of his adversary. The single-cause activist who makes it her life's mission to change one thing and misses out on everything else life has to offer.  These are extreme cases but we all struggle with the overwhelming need to prove a point from time to time, and end up spending hours rehearsing our positions, reliving unpleasant conversations, and eventually, regretting that all those hours could have been spent doing something enjoyable, something that didn't revolve around proving another person wrong.

There are some cases in life when I believe you can be right and happy.  For example, protecting my children from danger seems like the right thing to do and their continued safety and survival makes me happy.  But there are many more situations where you need to choose one of the two.  Every time I feel offended, insulted or otherwise put out by someone or some thing, I try to ask myself if I want to be right and therefore start down a path of attempting to show this person the error of their ways, regardless of the consequences or if I want to be happy, let them know gently that what they've said or done has upset me and then move on, whether they accept responsibility or not.  It's easier said than done but I've gained some mastery with practice. The trick, it seems, is to ask the question immediately before the negative thoughts start to take over.

So, a year has passed and another birthday is coming and this year, I decided I wanted my birthday to be amazing and devoid of the silly emotions that come with proving a point. So, starting a month ago, I reminded my family of the date and told them I wanted a huge celebration with decorations and breakfast in bed and gifts and champagne and foot rubs and singing and clowns...well you get the idea.   In other words, I communicated my wishes like a mature adult.  As a result, I'm really looking forward to this birthday instead of worrying that people will forget it.

So, is it better to be right than happy?  I can't deny that sometimes it feels good to be right but usually the euphoria is short-lived and is negated by the waste of time and energy it takes to get there.  Choosing happiness is more peaceful in the long run.

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