Would You Rather Be Right Than Happy?

Would you rather be right or happy?  In examining this question, road rage can be quite illuminating. Indeed, road rage can make for very entertaining therapy, especially if the person has to drive to reach the counseling office!

You see, as a counselor we frequently don’t get to see the issues ‘live’ as it were but have to rely on our client’s reports or accounts: often of course justifying and/or downplaying or completely explaining away their poor behavior.  But with road rage we often get to see the real deal.

I vividly recall a middle-aged man who was seeing me for anger issues who came to the session very red-faced, breathing heavily. He looked really mad! Sure enough, on his way to his session with me, he encountered a bus which (quite legally) pulled out from the curb in front of him. He didn’t see it that way! He was furious. He couldn’t wait to tell me, in detail, how bad this bus driver was; what he did that was so wrong; how it was typical of bus drivers and bad drivers in general; and so on, ad infinitum!

I was also once told a true road-rage story of a man who pursued another driver along the NSW coastline and who sustained his road rage until, fortunately for all involved, he ran out fuel some 200 kilometers later! Lord knows what would have happened if he’d actually caught up with the other hapless, and likely terrified driver!

We actually know what can happen, because in Sydney some years ago road rage led to two men getting out of their cars, yelling and swearing at each other, and that escalated to a bit of pushing and shoving and tragically, a push that led to one man tripping on the curb, falling backwards, smashing his head against the pavement and dying soon after.

So, what is going on with road rage, which can build from mild annoyance to white hot fury? What’s making us so mad? For those suffering from this affliction the answer is obvious: it’s caused by bad drivers. For those of us observing objectively, it’s caused by the person’s own mindset.

Take my counselling client for example: it was some 30 minutes since the bus incident, but he was still red hot. How had he maintained his rage? By obsessively thinking about it over and over. Or the rage of that man chasing the other driver up the NSW coast? By repeating the affront over and over, embellishing it with more and more justifications, by energizing it with images of what he was going to do to the person when he caught him.

Now, there may be an initial event in reality that causes a spike in our fight flight system.  Perhaps the bus driver used his legal right to swing out in an inconsiderate manner, who knows? But that’s now long gone. In the interim, we continually justify to ourselves why we are right to be angry. We become righteous. In fact, it has been my frequent observation that human beings would rather be right than happy. Sad but true.

So once the event has passed, it is our mindset, our thinking and framing of reality, that keeps us upset. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus put this most succinctly: Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.

So, what is to be done? Well, with my very upset client I asked him what sort of long-term relationship he was planning on having with this bus driver. This perplexed him somewhat, so I added; ‘he’s clearly a very important person in your life; what are your plans to keep him as such?’ 

At first, I thought I may have overstepped the mark, as he angrily denounced what I was saying as nonsense, that in fact he didn’t know this bus driver from a bar of soap! But slowly the obvious dawned on him. There was only the two of us present. There was no bus driver here right now. He was in fact upsetting himself.

We then talked about how we upset ourselves with two very common tendencies: one is to focus on that which is upsetting and to amplify it in our mind; and the second is to make others responsible for our feelings.

I went on to ask him if he really respected this bus driver. If he thought him worthy to live rent-free in his head? Again, he was at first a little miffed with me, but then he saw what I was getting at. Do we want to hand the keys to our emotional life to other people who may be ignorant or ethically deficient? Clearly not.

Once we realize that most of the time we are upsetting ourselves, we actually have a real choice: to stay upset, or to shift attention to something more constructive. 

Once we realize we can be in charge of our own emotional economy, we can decide in favour of our own emotional bank balance. In the end, it all depends on whether you’d rather be right or happy. While it really is that simple, alas it’s not so easy… But that’s a story for another day.