Off and on for the past year, I have written about how we often make the choice of something else less important instead of choosing for our own, or the happiness of the people important to us. I have received a great many comments and emails over the past year because it resonates with lots of people. With another year coming around, I’d like to delve deeper into the idea that being happy is a choice we make.
From time to time in our lives, we give up responsibility for keeping our life going in the direction that we want, or is best for us. We give in to that Level 1 behavior (see my blog on “Energetic Leadership”) and feel victimized by life because of the effect of all that happens around us. Consider when you feel slammed and blown around by all the forces of nature, family, relationships, and more, feeling unable to control your own direction. It’s that feeling you experience when you forget to reach deep within yourself and remember who and what you actually are, and what really makes you happy in life.
Many of us regularly put happiness just out of our own reach. I have heard clients say things like, “I’ll never be happy,” or “happiness must not have been made for someone like me.” What they miss is that those very statements are symptomatic of a problem that we all encounter.
Happiness really isn’t out of our reach; we put it there.
It can be easy to forget in the craziness of life that no one else can make us happy unless we first choose to open ourselves up to that possibility. Happiness really is within all of us. No one else can make us happy unless we first choose to place happiness—both our own and our loved ones – above other, less important things in our lives, such as winning an argument or being “right.”
The Dynamic Duo
Let’s take a look at how many people argue. I will call this example, “the Henderson’s.” The Henderson’s communicate by contradicting each other. They throw blame around like confetti, with Mr. Henderson insisting that his perspective is the right one. Mr. Henderson, in that very moment, is choosing to be unhappy and he doesn’t even know it. He has decided, through habit or choice, to be right rather than work towards serenity for himself and his wife. Indeed, Mr. Henderson might be right, and he surely feels justified.
Mrs. Henderson is now upset, pissed off, and very, very unhappy. Her unhappiness and discontent will sooner or later filter down to him because they really do share a great deal of their lives together. Soon they will both feel worse and worse after these kinds of arguments even though Mr. Henderson always wins.
They’re both independent, competitive people, so neither really enjoys “losing” an argument, even stupid, tiny ones about chores or helping with cooking or such. They place the idea of “winning” the argument over not only their own happiness, but that of their loved partner.
Winning and Losing
If you assume that life is all about winning the argument, then Mr. Henderson will have soon “won” at life. However, it will be little comfort to him when he looks back and realizes that all those “wins” made his and his wife’s lives miserable. He often got so caught up in the emotion of the argument that winning gets to be more important that the feeling of the other person. But what has he really won? How likely is it that Mrs. Henderson will tap her cheek and with a smile say:
“Well gosh, Jeff, you’re absolutely right! Thanks for spending the last 20 minutes arguing with me…haranguing me until now, finally I see the light!”
I see few people who say things like that without sarcasm. By beating down his wife and her opinion, forcing her to see his point of view and experience his petty rage, all he gained was ugly resentment and misery.
Why do they live like this? If you think about it, at some point we all learn that there is a value to winning stuff. You win at soccer, you get a trophy. You win a science fair, you get a plaque. You win someone over you’ve been in love with for years, and you feel fabulous inside. Everyone wants to win things; we just don’t know when to stop when it comes to applying our winning philosophy to relationships.
In relationships—at home, at work, even with your own extended family— what defines your relationship and communication is very multifaceted. It can be like this, when your boss “asks” you to do something, it’s rarely a question of your ability or time; they are simply phrasing a task in the form of a question. When your spouse asks you to take out the trash, again, it’s not really a question, but rather it is a request that isn’t really up for debate.
But most of us don’t get lessons in personal communication. Not in school or at any other time in our lives do we find those kinds of lessons readily available. It’s a tragedy, because lessons like those would help straighten out the kinds of communication we have and remind us that not every situation is worth “winning.”
Most arguments are ultimately futile, empty, and happening over miniscule things that really don’t have much meaning in our daily lives. By opting to argue rather than choosing to be happy, we chart a course each day in the wrong direction to reach happiness. They two are mutually exclusive; I have never met two people who were truly happy and happily arguing.
Mr. and Mrs. Henderson just didn’t know when to say, “This isn’t worth my effort to ‘win’ and make both of us miserable.” They argue and argue until one finally gives up, and the other “wins” the argument. But the winner really only “won” the temporary satisfaction of wearing down their opponent or in being declared “right.” Meanwhile, their spouse is exhausted from arguing and will soon become tired of being “wrong” and unhappy. And you wonder why 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce? The Hendersons just don’t know when to stop!
It’s Easier Than You Think
Sure, you say, choosing happiness over being right sounds easy enough, but often it’s always more complicated than that.
Wrong… Like most challenges you encounter in life, it is only as complicated as you make it. Sometimes we all make situations more complex, or complicated, than they really are. You can hardly imagine how many people grope around in the dark trying to do the right thing, but only discover excuses not to be happy.
You heard me; some people don’t want to be happy, but can’t admit that to themselves. They do know that they are trying to do right, be correct, win like they were taught, or feel the good feeling that being “right” gives them in the moment. The problem is that they wouldn’t know what kind of life to live, or what kind of person to be if they gave up their past hurts. Their past failures and their past choices are what they use as guides for behavior rather than a positive outlook for their own or their shared future. While the lives we live are the product of our choices and histories, we are not obliged to keep repeating what turns out to be mistakes over and over again. It is a choice we can make unless we choose not to. Many of us, fearful of the unknown, trained by our upbringing, choose what is safe and known, even if it’s misery and unhappiness.
You heard me; some people
don’t want to be happy,
but can’t admit that to themselves.
Sometimes an argument or disagreement is important to live through. You may be in a spot where some sort of solution has to be found or the issue will grow into something horrific. What this means that in the case of the Hendersons, they need to commit to some form of compromise. The amount of compromise they reach will determine who feels the best after the argument. The one who compromises the most usually feels the worst, like they lost.
Sometimes arguments are worth having, especially if they address important issues such as childcare, family, money, shelter, or food. These are things that are critically important to most people and deserve the undivided attention and efforts of both people. But even with these important issues, is there a complete “right” and an entire “wrong? There’s no one single right way to raise a child correctly, to manage one’s finances securely, a best way to purchase a house, or the best way take care of dinner. I teach my clients that the central path to happiness is learning to communicate your own expectations and needs to your significant other without framing everything as a win or lose battle. Without the need for winners and losers, usually no one wins or loses.
For example, if Mr. Henderson starts the conversation by saying:
“I think the way you coddle our child is going to screw him up for life!”
It makes you laugh, but he’s pretty much gutted the peace dove and grabbed a battle axe and shield to fight. The instinctive human response for Mrs. Henderson to such a challenge would be something like:
“BS, I was raised that way and I didn’t get screwed up!”
“How would you know? How many children have you raised?”
It is natural at that point for all the defenses to immediately go up and the battle is on for them both. When your emotional shields are up, you fight back and aren’t at all open to listening and/or being rational. There will now be a winner and a loser in this conflict, because that’s the way it was framed in the first place.
Compare the first comment with this:
“Jenny, I have some concerns about the way we’re raising our son. Can we talk about them sometime?”
Amazing! Suddenly your spouse isn’t feeling particularly defensive; concerned, yes, but concerned about your concerns and your desire to talk about them at their convenience. It also shows an openness and respect to the other person even before the conversation has begun. Did you notice? It is the opening to a conversation, not a confrontation. Your shields are more than just down; your minds remain open and rational. It’s a night and day difference without those heavy shields and swords.
Closing the Circle
A big part of “being happy” swirls around the choices we make in our everyday lives. Being happy concerns our daily interactions with everybody around us. How you say things, it is important to remember, is just as important as the point you are trying to make along the way. Picking things that are important to focus on and letting the unimportant battles fall by the wayside is also helpful to maintaining happiness.
It is important for all of us to decide carefully when an argument is so important, it needs to continue at the expense of happiness or tranquility. These times are rarer than most people think. Arguing about personal habits, being late, doing a chore, or remembering to pick up milk are unimportant, unless one person in the relationship makes it important. They are usually a waste of time, a source of constant and unnecessary stress, and will likely cause more ill feelings than problems they solve.
How you say things, it is important
to remember, is just as important
as the point you are trying to
make along the way.
Try and remember that old mantra your mom might have taught you:
“Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?”
In the middle of a fight, it never hurts to let that one wash over you. I know it’s not always an either/or proposition. But within each of us we hold the power to end a fight or argument and take the first steps to restore balance and happiness in our lives. And just as importantly—you can restore it in the lives of the ones you love.
So once again—consider the choice of happiness over the choice of being right. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Is being right becoming too expensive in your life?
Schedule some time and we can talk about how things are going and where you would like to go.