Of all the traits the happiest people share in common, one outshines them all. In fact, without it, genuine happiness can’t exist. That trait is truthfulness.
Without exception, truly happy people are committed to telling the truth about themselves to themselves—even when it’s scary and difficult. And they extend their truthfulness to others.
It sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? We all tend to think of ourselves as honest people for the most part. And in fact, for the most part we are. But when it comes down to looking our fear or sadness or anger in the face, it’s easy to back down.
We hide our darker feelings from others, too, fearing their rejection, criticism or judgment. Author, consultant and workshop leader Christopher R. Edgar says in his blog post, Self-Honesty and Self-Love, that it can feel risky to admit to ourselves, or to someone else, what is actually going on inside us.
“But,” he goes on, describing a time when he confessed a personal truth to a friend, “I’ve found that when I’m willing to fully accept how I feel in the moment, no matter what it might be, that’s when I get access to the joy and lightness I want in my life. Any energy I was using to avoid what I’m feeling gets freed up and becomes vitality.”
That’s the discovery that all happy people make about truthfulness. It’s liberating, joyful and empowering.
What Truthfulness Brings
Truthfulness grounds you in yourself. It helps to defend you against the outside forces of:
• Emotional storms
• Attacks from others
• Peer/ cultural persuasion to do what’s not good for you
• Reliance on self-approval, not approval from others.
Truthfulness makes you trustworthy—both to yourself and to others. Other people see your transparency and feel that they can easily know you.
Truthfulness deepens relationships. It opens the door for genuine intimacy. Your honesty promotes honesty in others. It empowers them and gives them permission to be honest themselves. When people share honestly with each other about their feelings and their needs, everyone is more likely to have their needs met.
We feel less tension and stress when we’re honest, too. Lies, even “white lies” are stressful. When you tell them to others, you have to remember what you said and to whom you said it. When you tell them to yourself, a part of you knows it’s not true. Lies are never kindnesses. You can learn to tell the truth tactfully and with respect. Truth comes from love, from a willingness to honor the importance of each relationship – especially the one you have with yourself.
Uncovering Hidden Truths: An Exercise
Here’s a little exercise that happiness researchers Foster and Hicks suggest to discover truths you may be hiding. Get out a notebook and write out as many statements as you can that let you fill in the blanks in this phrase:
“I pretend that_____, but the truth is ______”
It’s a great way to discover what you really believe and honestly want.
To develop greater intimacy with a partner, take turns completing the above phrase out loud to each other for ten minutes. Then spend time discussing what you discovered.
If the Truth is so Good, Why Do We Lie to Ourselves?
Dr. Gerald Goodman, author of The Talk Book: The Intimate Science of Communicating in Close Relationships, explains how we fall into the trap of self-deception. Truth can be painful, he says. “It gets in the way of ‘our universal urge to be better than we are.’”
We go on pretending that our behaviors, our relationships, our careers and family lives are just fine. We bend reality to make us more comfortable with the status quo.
The problem is that this kind of self-deception can become addictive. Rather than facing the unpleasant parts of ourselves that self-honesty reveals, we ignore the little pieces of reality that paint a less than perfect picture of ourselves.
We tuck our unwelcome feelings, our uncomfortable thoughts and our unsettling beliefs away in a mental trunk in the basement of our minds and pretend that we have risen above them.
And while that may seem to make us more comfortable, it means we’re living in delusion about who we are and about our true feelings. Our authentic self shrinks as our pretend self grows. We wind up having no clue who we really are. And that is a sure recipe for misery and suffering.
Writer Dragos Nicolae says living with self-deception “can lead to poor self-image, a lack of self-confidence, and a constant depressive, negative mood at the back of your mind. You start to feel that life treats you unfairly, when the truth is that life wants to help you out. You’re just not paying attention to it.”
Truly happy people, people committed to positive living, strive to have honest knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses and to know what they really want. “They are searching,” say Foster and Hicks “for what is real in their responses to life. In short, they strive for authenticity and accurate personal evaluation – to live in a state of integrity with themselves.”
“Where Will this Lead?”
As therapist Erika Krull, MS, LMHP points out, one of the prime benefits of self-honesty is that it lets you see where you need to make changes. In addition to the discomfort it can stir up, the call to change is another reason that it feels risky. We tend to resist change. It can be scary. And it’s work. Nevertheless, you only have the power to make your situation better if you admit the reality of a problem.
Nicolae suggests that one powerful way to motivate yourself to make needed changes is to ask, “Where will this lead?” If you don’t change your undesirable behavior, what are the consequences likely to be?
To add a more positive twist to his question, also ask yourself what possibilities might open up for you if you do release your unwanted behavior in favor of one that’s more in harmony with your true self.
Living Truthfully: A Life-Long Process
Discovering who you are is a life-long process. We don’t get the whole truth about ourselves in one blinding revelation. We sort things out a little at a time in what Dr. Goodman calls “ordinary moments of clarity.”
These moments of clarity are the little insights we get on a daily or weekly basis that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we need to face.
They come with nagging little feelings of uneasiness to show us that “we can:
- Be thoughtless
- Be impatient
- Be selfishly unfair
- Be not quite honest with someone close
- Monopolize the dinner conversation
- Brush off a friend’s concerns
- Give cheap advice
- Fear to reveal warmth
- Drink more than we thought.”
These ordinary day-to-day realizations, Dr. Goodman says, are the major shapers of our self-awareness. They are where we come face to face with ourselves and make the choice whether to confront them honestly or not.
These ordinary moments of clarity represent the moments that Foster and Hicks are talking about when they say this about the authentically happy people in their studies: “The choice to be truthful is a rich and deeply personal statement that happy people make about themselves, to themselves. It is a kind of truth that speaks to the ability to confront our personal mythologies, to look at our behavior honestly, and to do what is right for ourselves, regardless of the social pressure to do otherwise.”
Over time, we get better and better at hearing our Inner Truth Detector when, with feelings of unease, it signals us that we’re painting a false picture of reality to others or to ourselves. As we experience the liberation and empowerment of living truthfully, we learn to welcome its voice and to make our corrections immediately and with increasing grace and ease. And so we become happier and whole.