Why I'd rather be happy than right

Sally Brampton on letting go of righteous indignation and why she'd rather be happy than right

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger recently, mainly because it’s been hammering hard at my door. Somebody is very, very angry with me for not being the person they want me to be, or the person they think I ought to be. They want me to fall into line or, rather, to fall into their line.

I am angry with them for precisely the same reasons. After a few toxic exchanges, when I spat from my corner like a cat, I thought, what’s the point of this? All I was doing was defending my need to be right, when at the same time I knew there was nothing I could do to persuade them they were wrong and I was right, just as there was nothing they could do to persuade me they were right and I was wrong.

Sure, we could have won a few battles and landed verbal bullets like sniper fire, but in the end both of us would have lost the war. If somebody is that angry and you are that furious in your resistance, it’s a fight to the death. Of such things are bitter divorces and custody battles made.

I’ve never really believed in the rightness of being right (although it’s sometimes intensely difficult not to clamber on to that particular high horse) because right can only ever be subjective, just as there is no such thing as the truth. Truth is not a fact; it’s an interpretation, so all we are actually fighting about is our right to inflict our version of the truth on each other.

The bedfellows of anger are resentment and self-righteousness. Both are corrosive, eating away at us to the exclusion of everything else. As the Buddha put it, rather more elegantly, his voice resounding down the centuries, ‘You will not be punished for your anger. You will be punished by your anger.’ To put the Buddha’s words into neat, modern shorthand is to say, ‘I’d rather be happy than right.’ Meet anger with civility and suddenly, the war is over. It’s not capitulation, compromise or even an emotional decision. It’s an intellectual choice and the reward is peace of mind.

"I’d rather be happy than right. Meet anger with civility and the war is over"

It may sound very Zen but actually it’s plain common sense. If you keep hitting your head against a brick wall, you get brain damage. If you walk around the wall, you are free to go your own sweet way.

The most dangerous word in the language of self-justification is ‘but’ – a small word that carries a powerful punch. When it comes to anger, the moment you say ‘but’ you’re on a losing streak. I would forgive him… But he said this. I would let it go… But she did that. Long after an argument is finished, we keep it alive by playing it over and over, encouraging indignant resentment to settle on our shoulder like a pack of monkeys, chattering so loudly in our ear we are deaf to anybody else’s point of view. Where, in truth, is the argument now? Nowhere except in our heads. Where is our happiness and peace of mind? It’s lying in ruins at our feet.

It takes a conscious decision to let go of righteous indignation, to issue a sharp rebuke to the chattering monkeys and send them scampering off into the trees. It’s not easy and they will come back, but patient determination will force them to loosen their grip.

Right or happy? When it comes down to it, and it always does, I know which one I’d rather be.

Follow Sally on Twitter: @SallyBrampton

Come and meet Sally at our event, at 6.30pm on Thursday 3rd May 2012 – she’ll be in conversation with editor Louise Chunn, discussing life, love and how to survive it all. More information here.