A psychology-based approach to conflict
By Michael Easter
About five years ago my significant other and I were in a dumb argument. I wasn’t backing down. She wasn’t backing down.
Stalemate, I vented to a friend. I explained to him in agonizing detail why I was right, why my significant other was wrong, how the world would be better off if I could just get her to understand this — and did this guy have any advice for convincing her that I was right? His response: “Do you want to be right or happy?”
This question has since saved me a lot of headaches and led me to discover something important about the human mind.
Psychologists theorize that our capacity to reason didn’t develop so we could find better beliefs and make better decisions. Reason likely evolved so we could win arguments. Convincing others we were right helped us gain status and influence. In a debate our brain acts like our puff person, using reason as a weapon to protect us and make us look good.
Our brains always default to picking the evidence that helps us and ignoring the information that doesn’t. For example, here’s a fun game: Ask someone if they think they’re always right. Unless the person is some sort of egomaniac, they’ll usually laugh and say, “of course not.” Yet ask that same person if they think they are right during any one specific argument or debate and they will assume they are correct. And so, by default, we think we’re always right.
This mechanism probably made sense during the crucible of human evolution. It oftentimes still benefits us today. But in our safe, comfortable world the majority of our everyday disagreements — in relationships and at work — are astoundingly inconsequential in the grand scheme of our lives. When we ask ourselves, “do I want to be right or happy?” we insert perspective into the equation. Choosing the latter option can be uncomfortable in the immediate short term (we’re fighting against our pit bull brain). But over time it has a way of dissolving the bullshit that causes our everyday suffering. And when bullshit dissolves it becomes fertilizer, bringing growth.
“Do I want to be right or happy?” can even give us perspective and clarity to see another important fact: We probably aren’t right in most arguments. And neither is the other side. Time changes our worldviews. Most of us can look back on past arguments and realize that there are very few where we were totally, undeniably, universally right. We overreact more than we underreact. And who we are and what we know and hold true is a moving goalpost. A hill we’ll die on today is one we’ll happily cede tomorrow. Yet we all suck at seeing this in the moment. Even facts humanity holds universally true — like gravity — will likely be overturned in the near future, according to physicists.
So “Do I want to be right or happy?” is now a question that I try to ask myself any time another person and I face a discrepancy in perspectives. I am not perfect at asking this question. Wouldn’t even say I’m good at it. But when I do find myself in moments of tension with others, remembering to ask myself if I want to be right or happy buys me some emotional space and perspective and cuts down on my daily suffering. And that feels like happiness.
P.s. If you’re interested in how evolution has shaped our brain and influences our modern behaviors (both good, bad, and ugly) and how you can outsmart your evolutionary impulses for better physical and mental health, you might enjoy my book, The Comfort Crisis. It’s out May 11th. You can pre-order it wherever books are sold — but I’d love it if you order it here from an independent bookstore that conducts non-profit writing workshops for disadvantages kids and teens.