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Personality Research articles on personality

31Mar/112

Living a Lie: Happiness Economics and The Pathological Effects of Dishonesty

I had a night time dream recently where a friend of mine's girlfriend was getting to that point where she was too drunk. I said you need to stop drinking and she was affably defiant to that request. I knew she was headed on a course to a bad outcome (and I couldn't stop her), but she was in a state where she was unable to realize this. Which sparks the question why do people pursue self destructive paths or even why do people pursue any one path over another.

I was never very religious, but I was religious when I was younger, maybe more by upbringing or maybe by nature too. Towards the end of college I was having a difficult time and I found religion to be unhelpful in getting me through those difficulties. At that point I discarded religion. Maybe god exists, maybe not, I'm agnostic. But, religion and prayer, I think are ineffective tools in tackling the difficulties that one encounters in life. I think it causes people to put their fate in external factors instead of using and/or developing their own resources (physical, mental, social, etc.). Interestingly, this period of the early twenties is when the frontal cortex, the seat of analytical functioning comes most online.

When I was young, my brother had a friend who was a pretty awful human being (he would eventually kill himself with a video camcorder running so as to torment his parents with a record of his death). Before he and my brother were of legal age to drive they would take out one of my parents cars joyriding. I determined this was bad behavior (in my nine year old head) and would hide the keys from them. My brother's friend was skilled at manipulation. He eventually found out what I liked (at the time, bikes) and used that to get what he wanted. He said he had this trove of bike parts (he didn't in actuality) and if I gave up the keys, I could, maybe, have access to them. So I gave up the keys. I basically did something I thought was wrong and thus traded feeling bad (pain) for the possibility of a reward, the possibility of something that would make me feel good (pleasure). (This is something many people do in their marginally unethical jobs every day in the modern capitalist world.)

Just as I was duped, most people, to some degree, spend their lives being duped, duping others, or duping themselves (consciously or unconsciously) in an effort to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But, most people are just not very good at determining what will make them happy. (Further complicating things some people don't want to be happy because being unhappy is their most familiar state.) I think the mystery behind this is that most people don't want to admit they are wrong or that something they put faith in, effort in, is wrong, so they stick with the lie and pretend it's not rather than feel the temporary but possibly significant pain of admitting they were wrong and moving on to something else which might work. They pursue ego maintenance at the cost of happiness maintenance.

Thus, I think the happiest people are those that are most vigilantly honest about what actually gives them sustainable (long term) pleasure and/or what causes them pain (for themselves and others) and vigilant in expecting honesty from others. The saddest people, naturally, are the opposite. They are dishonest/deluded/confused about what gives them and others sustainable pleasure and/or pain which is far different from the momentary pleasure seeking behavioral pattern that addicts and to some degree most people pursue. They believe other people's lies (which may be conscious or unconscious), and/or they believe their own lies (which may be conscious or unconscious). They edit/filter reality to suit what they think will make them happy instead of working towards whatever path will actually yield sustainable authentic happiness.

So why do people voluntarily, willfully, even passionately pursue behavioral paths which hurt themselves and/or hurt other people. The religious ascetic lives in self denial, in the hopes that a life of suffering on earth will yield greater rewards in heaven. If they are wrong, they are only hurting themself directly (and the world indirectly in not contributing more to the world as a more productive individual). The religious extremist suicide bomber sacrifices their life and destroys the lives of others because they think they will receive greater rewards in the after life. Subjective truth, ideas people believe to be true but are actually not cause people to harm themselves and others.

Misinformation / incorrect beliefs (i.e. subjective truth), is clearly toxic. But how do you determine incorrect beliefs? How do you know you are being subjective instead of being objective. That's a crucial question which relates to the insanity of the world. There is no proof that killing infidels won't please some God that can grant happiness in the afterlife but there also isn't any proof that it will. I think therein lies the first key to determining correct beliefs/paths, actual proof. If you can't even produce evidence for something, you can't believe it, you can't follow it. There is no proof of a supernatural god. Faith is an attractive concept, but because anyone can have faith in anything, it's meaningless as a metric for determining value. The unrequited lover or individual in an unworkable relationship doesn't want to accept that they are wrong about the object of their affection (that their judgment was off, that their time was wasted). But if they don't operate on some standard of proof that the relationship actually works, who knows how much of their life they will waste. The Flat Earth Society is mostly a joke, but I'm sure some people believe it (and at a certain point in history every human being alive did). Gravity, the speed of light, the heliocentric model of the universe, these are proven ideas worthy of building a society around. Religion is not. That doesn't mean everything about religion is worthless, the golden rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) is a fairly well proven effective social strategy based on social science research, but it only has value because it is has proof behind it.

Now on questions of physical science (laws of physics, composition of molecules, etc.), objective truth is undoubtedly easier to determine. But what about social science questions? What's the best educational model, economic model, political system? That is where things get complicated. How do you protect against subjective bias. I think the answer to determining objective truth in these situations is happiness economics. What best makes the individual/micro happy without causing a negative expense on the macro/world best approximates objective truth. Shooting people might make me happy (subjective truth) but it has an obvious negative expense on the world. Professional baseball might make people happy (subjective truth) but if those resources spent on something else would make a happier world, then baseball fails the happiness economics test an is not objectively good. I contend that when faced with a situation where what makes you happy makes a partner/friend/others/the world less happy (or vice versa), one has to be dishonest to get away with that dynamic. Subjective happiness, subjective truth requires dishonesty. I also contend this pattern of lying (to cover up the unhappiness of others or oneself) is incredibly pervasive in and toxic to the world.

I recently watched The Cove which documents the capture and slaughter of dolphins in remote parts of Japan. Partially, the movie gets sidetracked with arguably emotionally pandering arguments (don't kill dolphins because they are smart and self aware, and save surfer's lives). These are borderline subjective truths. However, when the movie sticks to the rational proof, the stronger empirical evidence, that dolphin meat contains toxic levels of mercury and that dolphins are not the problem in depleting the world's fisheries, human over consumption of fish is the problem, it is very successful. If I were deciding the issue, I would like to look at things more thoroughly than just watching a documentary, but if they Japanese government is pursuing a path which is not supported by the objective evidence (in fact, which the evidence contradicts), then it's the wrong path.

Like the famous line in Anna Karenina "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". Good paths all share one thing, empirical proof (objective truth/honesty), and every bad path diverges from what's true (objective dishonesty) in its own way. The Japanese slaughter dolphins because contrary to the evidence on record, they mistakenly believe (subjective truth) they are protecting their food supply and also asserting their autonomy/independence. They, like most people, don't value empirical truth, and they, like most people, are contributing to an unhappier world (mercury poisoning) because of it. Faced with an inferior position they have to be dishonest (directly and indirectly) to continue this practice (hiding the industry as much as possible, lying about the mercury toxicity, etc.). The same holds true for the infant vaccine debate, the empirical proof shows vaccines don't cause autism, but some people are making decisions based on other faulty metrics (ego, faith, anti-science bias, sheer stupidity, etc.), and as a result more children die every year. The only study which ever showed a link proved to be a fabrication. Subjective truth, by nature, always contains fabrication (conscious or unconscious).

Subjective happiness exists and while it may seem or even be sustainable on an micro/individual level, it's definitely not on a macro/society level. The small towns in Japan benefit financially from the dolphin slaughter (and so can be considered possibly happily living a lie although the documentary depicts the villagers otherwise), but the population of Japan unknowingly exposed to the mercury laden dolphin meat which is labeled as other things suffer (hearing loss, blindness, birth defects, etc.). The person in a friendship/relationship who is dishonest to themself or the other party in the attempt to make things work isn't making the situation better. You can't fabricate objective truth just as you can't fabricate the ideal career or relationship. It always was going to work or it never was going to work, from the start. Every path you choose already has a predetermined outcome from the standpoint of objective truth, you just were incapable of seeing the objective truth (because you were lied to or you lied to yourself). The Japanese dolphin slaughter, from the beginning, was always the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do. When you knowingly resist seeing things as they truly are, you are simply not doing it right, and the longer you pursue a dishonest path the farther you stray from objective happiness. If truth does equal genuine authentic happiness, then the best metric in determining whether or not you are living a lie is simply AM I HAPPY and if yes, does your happiness come at anyone else's expense? If the answer to the first is yes and the second is no, you are doing it right. If the answers are anything else, you are not.

Only honest people are capable of sustainable happiness because it requires honesty to observe the world accurately, to make the kind of non-subjective empirical observations required to discern what correlates with actual sustainable happiness and what doesn't. Honest people see the world (and others/themselves) as it actually is, dishonest people see the world (and others/themselves) through the filter of their own (and/or other's) delusions. Unhappy people frequently make the mistake of selecting friends, partners, and even careers which mirror their delusions, effectively ensuring their continued unhappiness. They think in finding a familiar perspective/environment, they will be happier, but all they are doing is reinforcing their delusions, the source of their unhappiness. If your friends/partners don't actively challenge your perspective (and/or you can't handle that), you likely are a delusional human being. The need for external validation is really just the need to be lied to.

Only by being vigilantly honest and prioritizing what actually makes you organically happy on a day to day basis (that doesn't actually hurt anyone else in the long term), happiness economics, can you begin to find a more honest, real, and happy life path. If being honest ruins a friendship, relationship, or career, that was not a good friendship, relationship, or career. You cannot ruin what organically works just as you can't alter the speed of light or the force of gravity or the earth's rotation around the sun. The mind is capable of believing and/or wanting an endless amount of things to be true, which is why the mind is an unreliable metric/guide for truth and why people that are slaves to their minds are such dishonest complicated confused unhappy individuals. The potential truth (hypothesis) that actually makes you happiest on a day to day basis (without hurting anyone else), is what's actually most true, which is why the heart/happiness is a reliable metric/guide for truth and why people that are guided by their hearts (with consideration of the hearts of others as well) are such honest uncomplicated happy individuals.

A challenge in utilizing the happiness economics model, sometimes, is determining / dealing with what makes other people happy or unhappy. For example, when I strayed from religion it didn't make my parents happy. Many people are not capable of doing anything their parents (or friends or significant other) would not approve of (would upset them). I didn't always find it particularly comfortable either. I had a friend in a unhappy marriage (that was rushed into) but he could not bring himself to end things because of concerns for what his parents would think and concerns of how his spouse would handle it. His spouse had checked out of the relationship physically but didn't want things to end because she was financially dependent on my friend. So he was basically unhappy for two years, until the spouse finally agreed to end things. Two years wasted. I had another friend who had ended a relationship but continued to live with her boyfriend. He had moved from out of state for her, so she felt an obligation to him to at least keep living together until their lease ended in six months. Do you think there's still a chance it might work out? (i.e. is that why you are doing this), I asked. No, she responded. Are you guys going to be able to see other people in that period?, I asked. No, I couldn't handle that she responded. That sounds like an utterly insane situation that's not good for either of you, I said. I saw her six months later and she told me what I said made her realize it wasn't a good situation for either of them, and she had him move out a few days after we had talked. She ended up meeting one of my friends that very night and is still with him presently. That probably would not have happened had she wasted those six months in that unhappy situation. The only thing you are doing when you cave/cater/conform to other people's desires (over your own) is supporting their formula for happiness. If you know their formula for happiness doesn't actually yield sustainable happiness (for you), then you are merely contributing to dishonesty and subjective truth, at the cost of happiness/objective truth by placating them. You can't ultimately control anyone's path but your own. But, you certainly can make the mistake of letting yourself be controlled by others (consciously or unconsciously) or failing to be a good influence on others by not pursuing the most honest life path. When you are not honest with your heart, you not only sacrifice your own happiness, but you effectively reinforce the dishonesty and unhappiness level of others / the world.

The Empirical Evidence

Below I have included relevant personality items and their correlations to each of the personality traits listed above them. (Correlations are significant >.08 or <-.08, significance alpha=.05, sample size @1500.)

Extroversion
I don't trust my feelings. men -.22 women -.181
I am generally a very happy person. men .26 women .25

Stability (i.e. emotional stability)
I don't trust my feelings. men -.17 women -.155
I trust my feelings. men .234 women .178
I am generally a very happy person. men .33 women .31
I have a history of depression. women -.26 men -.22

Paranoia
I don't trust my feelings. women .16 men .224
I trust my feelings. men -.202 women -.155
I am generally a very happy person. women -.37 men -.32
I have a history of depression. women .27 men .17

Avoidant
I don't trust my feelings. men .252 women .16
I am generally a very happy person. men -.31 women -.32
I have a history of depression. men .22 women .20

Honor
I trust my feelings. men .20 women .17
I am generally a very happy person. women .19 men .14
I have a history of depression. women -.15 men -.13

Based on the evidence above, there seems to be a clear link between not trusting your feelings (heart) and being unhappy/depressed.

Personal Anecdotal Afterword

In college, I ran the radio station. Due to a building renovation they were moving the station into storage as they had not specified a relocation spot. I took some of the equipment to my house so as to have an awesome sound system for the summer. When the school year started, I got a call from the program director who stated that our cable transmitter and other equipment were missing from storage. I was a little freaked out by the missing transmitter so I instinctively didn't admit to having the other equipment as I technically didn't have permission to have it at my place. I was smoking a lot of pot that summer so that might have contributed to my paranoia (although I think I was mistrustful by nature then). The fact that it was unclear the radio station would ever be relocated (as we were always a black sheep campus organization) made it easy for me to rationalize continuing to lie about things. I eventually sent the equipment I had to another college radio station, anonymously. Eventually I had the campus police on me, and I even had my own movie style criminal interrogation (not pleasant). Months passed, the stress eventually became too much and I decided to be honest about things as I was potentially facing increased investigative pressure. It didn't turn out to be a big deal although I wasted several people's time and a lot of my own time stressing over things for many months. I wasn't happy and I certainly wasn't making anyone else happy with my decision to be dishonest. That was one of several instances where I chose to be dishonest in an attempt to make things more pleasant for myself, without regard to the effect on anyone else. Fortunately, I was never skilled at even making myself happy with that sort of behavior so it wasn't hard for me to abandon it.

I also spent many years on different health experiments convinced that each new experiment would yield me reliable happiness. I would tend to spend more time on failed one's than I should have because I wanted to be right more than I wanted to be honest with whether something was actually working, whether I was actually happier. It was only when I stuck with the one simple system that was the hardest for me (least pleasant), running, that I found something which actually worked for me. Although, I eventually ran every day for about six or seven years before recently determining running faster and increasing my recovery period (48 hours) worked better. This stresses the importance of vigilant honesty (is xyz actually working for me?), open-mindedness, and willingness to experiment / try something different in finding / figuring out what paths yield optimal happiness.

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Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Interesting read

  2. Very insightful.
    I wish my sister could understand this way of thinking.
    She would be so much happier if she tried to be honest to herself and find true happiness.
    Do you think some people are born with a (self)delusional tendency, or do they develop this kind of mindset because of circumstances?

    Thank you for this article. I needed to read this!


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