September 19, 2017
I’ve been keeping an honesty journal for the past several months. With honesty much in the news lately — you might even say honesty is having a cultural moment — I wanted to reflect on my own. My 6-year-old daughter once told me that telling the truth made her feel “gold in her brain.” Could upping my personal honesty light up a pleasure center in my own brain?
My plan was to jot down different instances throughout the day where I had to make a choice about honesty and notice how it felt.
The day I started the journal, the same 6-year-old daughter asked me during her bath if the cat really went to sleep last year, and if that actually meant that I had killed him. I rinsed her hair and sighed, wondering if I should wait to start this honesty project until my children were grown. But I braved it and told her that yes, I had made the choice for him to die, because he was suffering and I wanted him to be at peace. She lost interest about halfway through my explanation, which was O.K. with me.
It struck me that the choice to lie or be honest was often a choice between two equally undesirable things. Telling my daughter the truth did not make me happier, but lying wouldn’t have either.
A bigger opportunity arose with my 8-year-old son. Though he didn’t know anything about the journal, after a few weeks, he seemed to open up in a new way, asking me things he was too embarrassed or scared to ask before, like what the word “pimp” meant and why people kill themselves. In fact, one of my biggest takeaways was that we shouldn’t lie to children when they are asking us about grown-up words or ideas — otherwise, they will just ask Siri. If it’s between YouTube and me to explain prostitution, I pick me.
Still, I wondered about those little lies we tell to avoid hurting people’s feelings. Researchers at the University of California San Diego Emotion Lab are looking at “prosocial” lies — the white lies we tell to benefit others, like telling an aspiring writer their story is great because you want to be nice and encourage them, when in reality you know it needs work and will meet rejection. A recent study at the lab suggests that we are more likely to tell a prosocial lie when we feel compassion toward someone, because if you feel bad for someone, the last thing you want to do is hurt them with the truth. These lies feel better in the short term, but they often do more harm than good in the long. After all, the brutal truth can be painful, but people need to know it if they are to improve their performance, especially in a work or school situation.
But was brutal truth what I really wanted when it came to my marriage?
My focus on honesty at times did lead to better interactions with my husband. When the New York Times Magazine article about open marriage came out, for example, it sparked my curiosity. Since I was keeping an honesty journal, rather than keeping it to myself, as I would have done in the past, my husband and I had an honest discussion about it. Other times, the compulsion to be honest strained things between us. That I disagree with some of his parenting techniques doesn’t necessarily need to be pointed out every single time. I came to realize that, within relationships, there is a third category between dishonesty and telling white lies, called not sharing everything.
Over all, I found that I struggled more with the small instances of honesty, rather than the big. So, when a client accidentally paid me twice for a project — sending a duplicate $1,000 check a week after they’d already paid me — there was no internal debate. It was $1,000, so obviously, I notified the client. But when the McDonald’s drive-thru cashier gave me an extra dollar in change and the line had been SO long and all I wanted was a Diet Coke and my kids were acting crazy in the back seat and why was this stupid McDonald’s always so slow anyway?! . . . it was a different story. Even though I gave the dollar back, I almost didn’t, because an extra dollar was such a small thing and seemed somehow justified. Had I not been focused on honesty, I’m not sure I would have given it back.
My experience was consistent with what behavioral economist Dan Ariely wrote about in his 2012 book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. His research showed that we fudge the truth by about 10 percent or so. We cheat when we are fairly certain we can get away with it, but just by a little, and about things we can justify. We do it more if we see other people doing it. We do it less if we are reminded to be honest. My journal pointed these instances out to me rather starkly.
I also quickly came to realize that the Facebook version of Judi Ketteler, whose life was so together and children so well behaved, was a very particular version of me, a notion explored by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in his book Everybody Lies. Dr. Davidowitz, a data scientist, tackles the discrepancy between the ideal version of ourselves we present to the world via social media and the often-miserable confessions we make to Google as we search for the things we would never post in a status update. My social media self wasn’t a lie, but if I was going to focus on truly honest behavior, it seemed better not to indulge too much — hence, I pulled way back from posting on Facebook.
Even though honesty felt like a struggle, I started to like how it felt. Research from the University of Notre Dame has shown that when people consciously stopped telling lies, including white lies, for 10 weeks, they had fewer physical ailments (like headaches) and fewer mental health complaints (like symptoms of depression) than a control group that did not focus on honesty.
When people were more honest, they also tended to feel better about their relationships and social interactions, the researchers found. This rang true for me, mostly because I felt better about myself. I like the saying, “Everybody wants the truth, but nobody wants to be honest.” I didn’t always want to be honest. But I wanted the truth, and this focus on honesty helped me feel that I was doing my part.
The bottom line is that focusing on honesty is a way to actively engage with the world, versus passively complain about it. It might even make you feel like you have gold in your brain.