Self-Deception and Happiness

January 3, 2009 · 0 comments

I recently responded to a posted question in one of the Mensa groups to which I belong on LinkedIn, and thought I’d share my answer with y’all.  Here is the question:

Does the ability to deceive yourself (denial, inflated ego, positive thinking, etc.) help you be happier?

Radio Lab is a US public radio program. A recent episode “Deception” ends with a segment that talks about self-deception. ( http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2008/02/29 The section on Self-Deception starts about 47:00 out of 58:58 so you need about 12 minutes to listen.)

I want to do more research. But they imply that people who lie to themselves about potentially embarrassing self-revelations are more likely to be successful in competitive environments like sports or business. (The questionnaire is at http://www.wnyc.org/files/radiolab/Self_Deception_Questionnaire.pdf ) They further claim that people who are more brutally honest with themselves tend toward depression, and the converse that people who lie to themselves “… turn out to be happier people.” “We are so vulnerable to being hurt that we are given the capacity to distort as a gift.”

I’d be interested in your reaction to this idea. And I would also be interested in any references to scholarly material that either supports or disputes this claim.

This question was posed by Fred Leason.  Here is my response:

 Yes in the short-term and No in the long-term. (This, by the way, is how it works for me – I don’t know what goes on in the heads of others (I’m a solipsist anyway ;-)).

My read on the term “self-deception” would be rationalization or self-justification. I do these things often, though I try not to make them the basis for my entire world-view. I’ll use positive affirmations here and there (see http://quixoticjedi.wordpress.com/2008/05/19/the-coolest-guy-i-know/), sometimes to “psych myself up” for a situation, and sometimes just to get out of the doldrums. I’ll also tell myself little lies about what’s going on in the minds of other people when my feelings get hurt – usually I’ll ascribe some sort of positive motive on their part; this way I don’t have to believe that a particular person would _intentionally_ hurt my feelings. I find that these “techniques” work in the short-term because I don’t get stuck feeling sorry for myself for too long. Self-pity is an ugly cycle that I try to stay away from; so sometimes, yes, I lie to myself to avoid it.

These things are ok for me to do as far as very short-term, isolated incidents go, but one thing I have to watch out for is allowing myself to do this in the long-term – when I encounter the same situations over and over or for a continuing aspect of my life. Then I’m not living in reality – I’m creating a fantasy for myself, which will eventually come back to bite me.

This is why I don’t like movies where the plot is based on a “little white lie” – the main character has to create a whole web of subsequent lies to uphold the fantasy created by the first. To paraphrase Mark Twain: I prefer to tell the truth so I don’t have to remember anything.

A bit of self-justification or rationalization or self-deception can be a good thing here and there, but if I’m constantly telling myself the same lies over and over, I eventually can’t distinguish the true from the false. While I do believe that “this moment” is all the time I have in which to live, I also believe that the moments add up and that repeated behaviors become habit. And long-term self-deception is not a habit I choose to cultivate/acquire.

I agree with pretty much everything Douglas Bushong said above*; the portion in quotes in his second paragraph is very much how I try to live my life. I find that it keeps me relatively emotionally healthy. I accept up-front the fact that I’m going to make mistakes, and I don’t believe that it’s worth it to have anxiety about making mistakes in the future or having anxiety about past mistakes.

 What do you think?  Does self-deception make you happier?

*Douglas‘ response was as follows:

I think the self-deception is a defense mechanism and a “work around” that we use to get by if we are unwilling to forgive ourselves. When a transgression occurs between us and others, we are often quick to forgive others but slow to accept their forgiveness. When both ends of the transaction are internal, however, most people are unwilling to provide or accept forgiveness at all.

Those that can look at a mistake and say “this thing happened. I accept it, I learned from it, and now I will let it go. I must now remember the lesson without dwelling on the guilt” are few and far between. If someone is incapable of letting go, then the only thing he can do to avoid a nervous breakdown is diminish the significance of the mistake.

I’m a big proponent of living a transparent life, but I think the most difficult transparency is the transparency within yourself. It is amazingly difficult to look at your own mistakes and embrace their lessons without reliving the negative emotions that are often tied to them. Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile effort, and one that contributes to your overall well-being.

To answer your question: no, I do not thing it will make you happier. While it can give you positive emotions in the moment, there is a stress that comes when you try to live with a contradiction. If you want to remove that stress and be happier in the long run, then it is important to root out the self-deception.

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