A few years ago, shortly after I made a career change and moved my family from Canada to the United States, I became depressed and started seeing a bad therapist. OK, maybe I shouldn’t say “bad”, but he was just not very effective for me. He often seemed bored during our conversations, and once when I asked him what it was like to listen to people’s problems all day he replied, “It’s a real treat.” O-Kay.
He was a psychologist and had written a book, which I dutifully bought and read. However, all I remember about the book is that it involved some theory of relationships as triangles, and one person in the triangle had to do things differently and stop re-creating negative patterns. I’m not sure that makes any sense now that I think about it, so I guess neither the book, nor most of his advice, stuck with me.
However, he did tell me one thing that I think about often:
Most people would rather be right than happy.
I think his exact words were, “I’m always amazed that most people would rather be right than happy.” He may have even shaken his head when he said it, to indicate his amazement.
I’d been working at a big Fortune 50 company for over a year after moving my family, and I was miserable. You see, in my twenties I traveled the world working on development projects trying to help farmers increase their income. My curiosity about other cultures, desire to travel, and need to feel helpful were are fulfilled by that job, and when I went to business school and then transitioned to the corporate world, I found myself feeling empty and sad much of the time. My family was a respite from the stress and boredom of my job, but they also felt like a burden, and I felt trapped.
I must have told my therapist something about being able to see a future of endless misery, when he replied with the comment about being right instead of happy. It was almost a throwaway comment on his part, without any follow-up, and indeed felt to me like an accusation rather than compassionate advice.
However, fifteen years later his words ring very true, and I see how they apply to myself, and others. I realize that having a bleak outlook on the future, and not doing anything to change my situation, is a way to feel like I have control over my life. Pessimism may get you negative results, but optimism is scary because you might fail. In the same way, taking the safe route in life, and not taking risks, can deliver a feeling of security but also restlessness and boredom.
I’ve now seen my son, who is in college, occasionally exhibit the same desire to be right rather than happy. “I’m going to fail my next test,” he told me during a difficult first semester. “I’m not smart enough.” I assured him that he was smart enough and that no results were set in stone for an exam that hadn’t happened yet. But I understood the desire to feel in control of his destiny, to prepare for disappointment rather than expect success and experience disappointment instead.
At this point in my life, however, I can say that I’d rather be happy (or at least active and involved) than right. I try to accept that I can’t control the future, and that my predictions are often wrong. Sometimes this is terrifying, but feeling the fear is also the key to feeling the joy, and sadness, and all the other emotions we often try to tamp down.
Better safe than sorry? Maybe it’s actually better to be sorry than safe.