Tim Butler

Counselor, Life Coach & Speaker

Right vs. Happy

You can be right, or you can be happy, but you can’t be both.

Have you heard that before? Or, have you ever said that to yourself? Chances are it’s not new to you, but the larger question is, how accurate do you feel it applies to your life?

I remember sharing this thought with a fellow golfer who was frustrated with the organizer of the golf outing. The components that were bothering this golfer were things that only the organizer was able to change. The golfer could either keep railing against the policies, or, accept them. He chose the former. When I shared my comment of right vs. happy with him, he looked at me with a blank stare and said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

In my practice as a therapist and my work as a life coach, I often quote the right vs. happy mantra and get the very same response; blank stare. We feel so justified in our rightness, that we lose sight of the impossibility of our efforts. Clearly we all know the other oft-quoted sentiment of doing the same thing over and over again—expecting a different result—qualifying for a diagnosis of insanity. But, yet when we find ourselves in this loop of insanity, we justify it with our own passion for rightness.

Never so true as in a marriage, or long-term employment relationship. These are the dyadic relationships that are long-term, predictable, repetitive, socially intimate and potentially most irritating. We do not like what someone else does, and we experience them doing it again and again. We have spoken to them about our views and preferences, but nothing seems to change. We may have even straight-up asked them to stop, but they chose not to comply with our wishes.

So now what? I have a right to be happy. Wait, they are getting in the way of my happiness. So, now, my unhappiness is their fault. I am irritated. I am a victim. And the cycle continues.

Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy? That is the question I must wrestle with if I am to live in emotional freedom. Sometimes, the more right I stay, the moremiserable I become. What is the answer?

Death to our expectations. Death to our sense of control. Grieving.

We refuse to grieve. We refuse to give up hope of change in the other person, or the situation over which we have no control. We don’t like to let go. We also don’t like to give in. Seems to be a defeatist attitude doesn’t it? “So what, am I to have no expectations?“, I hear repeatedly. Well, that might be the first step in heading down the road towards peace, versus, rightness.

But really, are there not endless shades of gray between the polarities of black and white? Are there not other options that we could explore and employ? Does it have to only be, hang on to rightness, or merely lose?

The point is to be aware enough of our own struggles, and corresponding inner turmoil (research Emotional Intelligence for more on this) to know when we need to loosen our grip on rightness and look to our own peace or joy. I loved the quote I read (forgetting which author) after the death of my daughter in 2002 which said there was peace in resignation. It is so true. When I resign myself to the truth of my reality, I will then be better equipped to secure peace.

But we hate to lose control, and resigning seems to not be an American value. But then, neither is peace, or joy it seems. We find great merit in not giving up. Stick it out. Determination. Resolve. Don’t they apply? Sure. But now we are back to the shades of grey.

A coaching client recently wrote this about her experience with this inevitable dichotomy:

“Right versus Happy. I had never thought of it that way – for almost ten years of my marriage I had been holding onto right!  This sense of right was controlling me and I refused to let go.  I would feel so justified in my rightness that I was willing to fight (either internally or outwardly) unceasingly until I felt “understood”, because after all I was right.  But honestly, almost never, did I ever feel happy.  Even if I ended up being right.

The most recent example the engine light in my new van was malfunctioning and constantly reading check engine every time I started up the van.  I had asked my husband to get the light fixed and for months he continued to say that he would take care of it. For months I waited and it never happened.  Every time I drove somewhere there was a constant nagging and annoyance that would take over me.  Depending on my day, mood, circumstances I would just deal with it huffing and puffing or I would become angry and justified and begin to nag my husband about it.

Then one night while driving home with my four small kids I decided that I had enough, that I was right the engine needed tended too and that I was no longer going to let him get away with it.  I laid into him.  I was mean and I demanded my sense of right with every word I shouted.  It didn’t end pretty, in the end I was the one apologizing and I was the one miserable.  It felt disgusting.  The next day an appointment was made to fix the engine but I still didn’t feel any better – in fact I felt more miserable.

As a result, this notion of not being able to be both right and happy was brought to my attention.  It was the most revolutionary thing I had ever heard.  For years I had been trying to control my anger (in my marriage) with Bible verses, talking to friends, excusing myself for a walk in the heat of the moment and although these were goodand healthy steps to take I wasn’t really experiencing a lot of victory. My heart was still feeling annoyance, anger, disappointment and justification. I wouldn’t let go of things and when they had stewed long enough I would unleash – despite my best efforts to keep calm.

My heart needed to change and I began to really think about and digest this idea of not being able to be both right and happy at the same time.  I thought about it in connection with my own life; my history of emotionally exploding, my annoyances with my husband and it all began to add up.  Although I was “right” in many of these situations, there was ultimately a choice that needed to be made.  If I chose to pursue being right, it would came at a cost.  The cost of fighting with and belittling my husband, the cost of losing control, the cost of living annoyed and frustrated and ultimately it was never worth it. I always ended up feeling worse, never happy and empty.  But choosing happiness in these moments though and laying aside my right to be right wasn’t near as costly and actually a lot more freeing.

I began to experience victory as I have started to walk this out over the last several months.  Most recently we had taken our family out to eat. As you can imagine with four little ones under 5 it can be quite the dining experience.  For whatever reason, I was mad at my husband that night while leaving the restaurant.  I decided I was going to let him know about it when we got home and the kids were asleep.  Then the phrase, “You can’t be both right and happy tonight, Ali” began to play in my head.  I thought about it – and it was so true.  Although I was pretty certain I had valid reasons to be right that night it wasn’t worth the cost.  If I started in on my husband, even gently expressing all my annoyances it was going to come with a cost.  It was going to create distance between us for the rest of the evening, it would allow things to stew that didn’t need to be said, it would make me feel angry, grouchy and I didn’t want to spend my evening in a funk.  My rightness was so not worth it!  So I let it pass and it was a glorious and sweet night.  I was so glad I chose happy in that moment.

I now have written on a piece of scratch paper and taped it under my coffee pot – “Right vs. Happy”, as a reminder to choose happy over right.  As I continue to practice this and put it into action I am a strong believer that it is worth it every time. Tim, said it so clearly, ”Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy? That is the question I must wrestle with if I am to live in emotional freedom. I am finding, the more ‘right’ I stay, the more miserable I become.” I am going to choose happy!”


Ali G. Bowling Green, Ohio


Is your situation one in which you are finding a pattern of being filled with angst, more than being able to create rightness? If so, then maybe it would be prudent—and healthy—to resign yourself to your reality. And pursue happiness.