If you had a choice between truth or happiness, which would you choose? muse Positive Psychology Expert Dr Suzy Green, explores when truth really matters.
It appears that most of us make this choice, at least unconsciously, every day. We choose happiness over truth. We look for evidence to confirm our beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. We dispute evidence to the contrary because it’s painful or inconsistent with the beliefs we hold or the image we want to project to the world. We delude ourselves in so many ways.
Many people think truthfulness is a pre-requisite for a happy life. However, like most things in life, it’s not that simple. The contention continues to be hotly debated in disciplines from philosophy to religion and literature. Within the field of positive psychology, the focus is slightly different. We favour a more granular and specific paradigm anchored by ‘character strengths’ (visit viacharacter.org). While they’re related to the more abstract ‘truthfulness’, honesty, integrity and authenticity are character strengths that can be assessed and cultivated. Those with honesty as a ‘signature strength’ pride themselves on being truthful – and living a true or authentic life. In fact, when they can’t be completely honest or act in a way that’s congruent with their values, they often suffer considerably.
In fact, when dishonesty happens or breaches of trust occur, it can take a very long time to rebuild a relationship.
The reason values, beliefs and related behaviours based on truthfulness are so powerful is that contrary to what the truth-happiness dichotomy suggests, being honest with yourself (i.e. authentic) has been shown to yield psychological benefits. Living a life congruent with your values and core beliefs correlates with wellbeing while living an ‘inauthentic life’ is highly correlated with psychopathology.
Of course in terms of our relationships, being honest, open and acting with integrity helps build trust – which is the foundation of a positive relationship. In fact, when dishonesty happens or breaches of trust occur, it can take a very long time to rebuild a relationship.
On the flipside, there is such a thing as too much honesty (according to playwright Oscar Wilde, a great deal of sincerity is absolutely fatal). Even candour needs to be exercised judiciously since the defence ‘I was just being honest’ doesn’t excuse or minimise the effects of hurtful comments.
Truth (in the guise of realism) can also do damage in the context of hopes and dreams. According to the hypothesis of ‘depressive realism’, seeing things as they really are can undermine the hopeful merits of dreams and fantasies and increase the likelihood of suffering depression. Theory goes that ‘rose-coloured optimists’ are more positively biased and experience lower levels of depression than devoted realists (think scrolling pictures of the beach you’ve booked for your honeymoon in full sun rather than scrutinising forecasts). So the myriad ways in which we delude ourselves with unrealistic projections and appraisals – for instance, the Dunning-Kruger effect posits that most people believe that they are better than average drivers despite statistical impossibility – can be a positive thing. In fact, theorists in this area suggest that if we didn’t create these positive illusions and saw reality as it really was, we may not be able to get out of bed in the morning!
So the key question becomes not ‘does the truth really matter?’, but ‘when does it really matter?’ In what scenarios do you really want to know the truth and maybe more importantly, how will you manage the associated negative emotions that can arise by being privy to the truth (when is truth’s hurtfulness in the service of growth, and when isn’t it?). Of course, calling out lies and untruths is important, not just for our personal growth and development, but for our relationships and our world.