Could being right be better than being happy? In a new study from the University of Auckland in New Zeeland, researchers describe an unusual experiment aimed at investigating the link between happiness, quality of life, and being right. Their findings suggest that, in order to avoid catastrophic consequences, it may be best to strive towards a delicate balance.

Psychotherapists often encourage stressed out, career-driven clients to “live in the gray” — a philosophy characterized by open-mindedness, tempered reasoning, and a sensible view on polarizing contentions. However, few practitioners can say for sure whether one extreme would be better than the other. The new study, which is published in the Christmas edition of the journal BMJ, sought to determine once and for all whether it is better to be right or happy.

To test such an idiosyncratic hypothesis, the team designed an equally idiosyncratic experiment. They enrolled only two subjects: a wife and her husband. Both were asked to complete a questionnaire measuring their individual quality of life on a scale of one to 10. It was then decided that, for the purpose of the experiment, the husband would prefer to be happy and the wife would prefer to be right. However, only the husband was informed about these roles. “The female participant was blind to the hypothesis being tested, other than being asked to record her quality of life,” the researchers explained.

The idea was that the husband would simulate both roles by focusing on his own happiness while agreeing with everything his wife told him. This way, the wife would constantly be “right,” and he would always be “happy.” Even if his wife was objectively wrong about something, the husband was to bow and scrape in acquiescence.

Unsurprisingly, the experiment was cut short after only 12 days, when the husband began to report “severe adverse outcomes” to the data monitoring committee. His quality of life, he said, had plummeted from a 7 to a 3. The wife, on the other hand, recorded an increase from 8 to 8.5. “The situation had become intolerable by day 12,” the researchers wrote. “[The husband] sat on the end of their bed, made her a cup of tea, and said as much; explained the trial and then contacted the Data Safety Monitoring committee who terminated the trial immediately.”

It would appear that, while being right increases one’s quality of life, it does so at the expense of other people’s happiness. For this reason, the “gray area” recommended by psychotherapist may still be the most sensible option. "It seems that being right is a cause of happiness, and agreeing with what one disagrees with is a cause of unhappiness," the researchers wrote in their conclusion. "The results of this trial show that the availability of unbridled power adversely affects the quality of life of those on the receiving end."

Source: Bruce Arroll, Felicity Goodyear-Smith, Simon Moyes, Timothy Kenealy. "Being right or being happy: pilot study." BMJ 2013;347:f7398 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f7398