Would you lie to be happier?

First, THANK YOU for the support & encouragement last week on the new edition of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not! You guys are awesome, and your words, help & friendship mean more to me than you know.  Thank you!!!

Second, a serious (but interesting) question: Would you lie to be happier? Before you answer, let me tell you what’s prompting this question:

I’m finishing up a book I’ve really enjoyed.  It’s about positive psychology – the idea that rather than psychology being entirely about studying & treating what’s wrong or addressing the things that  make us sad in life, there are benefits to focusing on what is going well.  The overarching idea is that developing a tendency to look on the bright side actually re-wires our brains to notice good things and see difficulties as surmountable challenges, rather than the end of the world.  In short, positive psychology is an attempt to connect the dots between “Don’t Worry” & “Be Happy.”  I appreciate the effort :)

I’ve read a bunch of similar books – they pop up with some regularity on the shelf at my library and the pretty orange/red/yellow covers are fun to bring home and have around for awhile (I know some folks use house plants for this, but I’ve yet to overwater a book…)   This book doesn’t provide much I haven’t read before, but it’s organized in a way that makes the information memorable, and helps me synthesize it and think about how it relates to other things. About halfway through, I decided that the next time I was in a bookstore I’d buy my own copy so I could underline, highlight & scribble notes in the margins (that makes me happy!)

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Then I went online to learn more about the author. And I discovered that he may have fibbed/exaggerated/lied (pick the verb you like) about several of his credentials.  He mentions Harvard about every third sentence in the book, but that’s standard around here. If you’ve got the Crimson connection, why not flaunt it? I’m okay with that. It was interesting reading his descriptions of his research there, his time on campus as a student and dorm overseer, lectures he’s given in “Harvard’s most popular class,” students he worked with.  The very strong implication was that he worked as a professor teaching & conducting positive psychology research. But that’s not true. He was an undergrad, and then a student at the Divinity School. He was a TA for the professor who taught the popular class. And his research for this book was mainly (from what I can tell) hanging out with students in dorms, observing & talking to them. Which is fine–I didn’t grab the book for his research cred, and it doesn’t change any of his points. But I feel misled.  Which is a bummer, because something that made me happy now makes me feel vaguely uneasy.

On a larger scale, it has me asking: Is it worth it to take this risk to reach a professional goal?

Let’s be clear: He didn’t fabricate flat-out falsehoods (how’s THAT for accidental alliteration?) I mean, the guy was at Harvard, he no doubt spoke to students. And he probably even gave talks in the class he TA’d and in the dorm he oversaw. But the gap between that and what a reader imagines from his word choices and descriptions is pretty broad. It’s a risky choice. But it got him a publishing deal and a Ted Talk. So it paid off.  If happiness is the currency here, this choice  to mislead or exaggerate brought him lots of happiness, and only cost me (and other readers) a little.

(In a fascinating detail, his degree from Harvard Divinity School is in Buddhist and Christian Ethics)

Would you fib/exaggerate/lie if it would bring you LOTS more happiness at little cost to others?


4 thoughts on “Would you lie to be happier?

  1. Fluffing the truth happens SO MUCH in music. Take musicians like Norah Jones, Adele and Taylor Swift. The vast majority of listeners are fed and believe, that these ladies write all their own tunes. All the players are acknowledged in the CD sleeve and they’ll talk about collaborators and producers here and there but the truth is those collaborators and producers are responsible for a lot of the sound that are credited almost entirely to the artists (by their handlers usually but you don’t often see the artists denying it). I actually think there’s no shame in co-writing and in fact, places like Nashville encourage and even prefer co-writing teams (like the Civil Wars, who met when hired with several other writers, to write every single song for an emerging artist). This leaves other artists like myself in a strange position. I always tell people the truth, that I co-write and I’d say 50% of the time, they’re disappointed that I’m not a ‘Norah Jones’ who writes everything on her own. But Norah Jones only co-wrote 2 songs on her first critically acclaimed album. Now people are hailing this new artist Lorde (a 16 year old New Zealand gal) as a genius because she wrote the lyrics to “Royals” in 30 minutes. I’m sure that’s true but the resultant track, with it’s arrangement, mixing, harmony choices and instrumentation are at least an equal half of the reason why we love that song. And the latter was all thanks to her producer. His name is mentioned but no one is calling him a genius. Likely because he’s not the one they’re going to hold up to the masses to ask for their money.

  2. I wonder if the reality of it is not so much that people lie TO BE happier but that they lie to keep up. Our society is incredibly competitive, and we are forced into a paradigm where we now feel compelled to live by its’ rules.

    This competitive-based society leads us to say things like, “Yes, my book selling is going great!” instead of, “My book-selling is good, but I’ve had to adjust my expectations since the inception of the project,” (or some such thing)

    So would we lie to create an identity for ourselves that we feel proud of in our competitive-based society? The magic 8-ball says, “Seems certain.”

    The larger problem is that our outside shell doesn’t match what we are feeling under the surface. (Though we put on a happy face, are we happy?) And then, there is, of course, this chance that we believe our lies, which is particularly problematic! (Is it possible that we have to somehow believe the lie and the justification of that lie in order to live with ourselves?)

    Sadly, though, I think this is our reality. We justify ourselves in order to feel important with little understanding that it won’t actually be the thing that brings us happiness.

    1. I agree, I think it’s largely born out of keeping up, almost like a necessity to play with the big dogs. This is sort of the ‘fake it until you make it’ maxim is recommended by many successful people. Where is the line though? Certainly we should carry ourselves as if we’re already arrived but like the Harvard author that Trish is referencing we have a chance to arrange our words with integrity or not.

  3. Ha ha. Yeah, I’m with you. :) I wonder if realistically the only way out is one of two things. You could strive for a different definition of success. So it’s simply fine that your work is what it is – known locally or whatever – so long as you can say that you are satisfied and your needs are met. You are happy as you are, realizing that you don’t need international success to be happy. Or. The other way out is that you just quit the race. You stop doing whatever it is that forces you to feel like you have to keep up with the standard because realistically it’s poisoning you.

    That said…it is entirely possible that this author believes what he wrote. And that is an entirely different problem.

    For myself, I think that I’d want to admit that I, too, have a desire and “need” to “inflate” the numbers in order to appear successful to others. When I am alone, I can easily feel happy, fulfilled and purposeful. It’s not until I am talking to someone else and I think, “They won’t take me seriously if I don’t explain more about the meaning of these numbers.”

    And even just beyond that – there is just the persona we put out there. Who do we say we are to the public? Is that who we really are or not? Are we secure in our identity or have we put something out to the public that feels safe to us? Have we managed to react in a way that we know is appropriate though it’s not how we really feel or what we really believe?

    The question of the lie seems to go pretty deep.

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