Are We Happier Lying to Ourselves?

I’m not lying to you: scientific experiments have shown that people who lie to themselves are happier than people who tell themselves the truth:

Radiolab: Lying to Ourselves

To begin, it’s interesting to note how the experimenters distinguished the truth-tellers from the liars. There were two ways.

In one experiment, people were asked to pick out their own voice from recordings of 10 different voices saying the same thing. While they tried to do this, electrodes measured bodily signs such as perspiration. Many subjects were not to give reliable answers orally, but the electrodes detected that their bodies could identify their own voice. In other words, their conscious minds were not able to access a truth that they knew deep-down.

In a more amusing experiment, the subjects were asked embarrassing questions, the answers to which are well-known, but which people won’t admit. The most mild was, “Have you ever enjoyed your bowel movements?” Of course everyone has, but not everyone will admit it.

It turns out that the same people who would not admit the truth in the second experiment were the ones who had the hardest time accessing the truth in the first. OK, so now we know who is most able to lie, even to themselves.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that these people are better at some things. For example, competitive athletes pump themselves up before the big contest by telling themselves, “I’m invincible.” The Radiolab show reported that swimmers who lied in response to the embarrassing questions were more likely to qualify for the big race at the end of the year.

What did surprise me is that people who lie even to themselves are happier. I can recall times when I attempted to hide the truth from myself, and I was not happy.

I recall an episode at Christian retreat when I was young. We were supposed to “spend time with God” by going to a quiet place and meditating on the scriptures. Then, we would meet as a group and share what we had learned. The scripture I chose pertained to God creating the world. During my meditation, I realized that God as ultimate creator must be the source of all love. When I shared this with the group, everyone thought that was wonderful.

But I was lying to myself, for even as I shared my supposed truth, I realized that the same logic would demonstrate that God is the source of all hate. With the help of groupthink and my desire to think godly thoughts, it only took a half-conscious effort to suppress the unpleasant inconsistency. Still, I was uncomfortable.

That was a lie that I caught myself in, but how many did I not notice? Regular readers of this blog know that I have reversed many of my deepest convictions over the last few years. To what extent was I ignorant in my earlier years, and to what extent was I just lying to myself? Sometimes, as at the retreat, I was aware of half-conscious lies. I suspect they were the tip of the iceberg.

The scientists on Radiolab said that people who see the world as it is tend to be more depressed. The show’s closing line was, “We’re so vulnerable to being hurt that we’re given the capacity to distort … as a gift.”

Maybe so, but I do know this: I tell myself the truth more often now and am happier for it. I have become a big fan of reality. The lies one tells oneself become a burden. I didn’t realize how heavy the burden was until I crawled out from under it. I suspect that even unconscious lies drain the body of energy.

Even unpleasant reality can hold amusing ironies. Or at least they can be amusing if one cultivates a sort of Buddhist detachment. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe we can only stand the truth if we can stand apart from it sometimes.

What do you think? Are we happier with a little dose of self-deception, or is clear-eyed truth-telling the only way?

3 responses to “Are We Happier Lying to Ourselves?

  1. theconvictedmama

    This was an interesting study. (I wonder if anyone has ever done a lie detector test to see if people believe in God?) One of the comments was from one of the psychologists that did the study and she writes “One clarification I would like to make is that we never asserted that self-deception was associated with mental health and well being. The purpose of the research was to understand if self-deception aided performance in athletes, not whether their psychological profile was something to aspire to. I agree, the research is disturbing! It insinuates that the qualities many of us aspire to in western society to succeed actually draw us away from our true selves…The search of excellence in performance may not be he same as the search for meaning or the search for happiness. Humbly, Joanna Starek”
    I found her comments interesting, in that lying to ourselves performance wise (you can do it!) is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to other areas of life. I think you would agree. However, I also find it amusing that you have been describing your happiness INCREASING as you go further and further away from God. Wouldn’t the premise of this study suggest that you are lying to yourself if you are happier? Although I think that we agree, that truth is more important than happiness (for me it is, anyways, and I think it is for you as well.) I wouldn’t say that truth (as I am finding it) is making me happier, but it does give a deep down satisfied feeling, that I might describe somewhat as inner peace.

  2. Howdy! This post couldn’t be written much better!

    Going through this article reminds me of my previous
    roommate! He always kept talking about this. I most certainly will send this article to him.
    Fairly certain he’s going to have a great read. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I am one of those people who, for the most part, sees things as they really are, and, yes, it may account for a certain amount of depression in my life. I won’t say that I am never delusional or biased, but I believe I’m less so than most people. When others were embracing things like astrology and swallowing urban legends without question, I was the one rolling my eyes and calling it nonsense. I didn’t need to look up information up Snopes because I could easily see a million flaws in the logic for myself. The same with religion. I was raised a J.W. but could never quell the questioning voice inside my head. As an adult, I left the religion and never looked back.
    Whether this characteristic of mine has made me more or less happy is hard to say. But there have been more than few occasions when I wished I could “believe” because I thought it would make life much simpler and I would fit in better.

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