I’m a really, really good liar. Seriously, I am. When I was growing up, I learned at home how to do it right, even though the same person who taught me how to do it so well would punish me for lying to him.
From a very early age, I learned to answer the phone when my father was dodging certain phone calls. I was coached in exactly what to say to which people, completely without regard to the truth, of course. I was frequently casually informed of lies so I could be sure to back up one of my father’s lies if it came up in conversation.
For instance, we were one time on the way to visit my father’s boss when he told me to say that my foot was fine if I was asked about it. He had needed an excuse to leave work one day, so he claimed that I had been injured by having a lawnmower blade hit my foot. (He had read a tiny news item about it happening to another boy, so he just transferred the story to me when it was convenient.) Things such as this were common for me.
As I said, though, lying to him was strictly forbidden. If I was caught doing it — and I was, from time to time — I was severely punished.
I was so immersed in the culture of lying — mostly what my father would have considered little white lies — that it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how deeply my actions conflicted with my professed beliefs. In theory, I was committed to the truth. In reality, I was committed to deception — in order to avoid inconvenient truths.
Over the years, it’s something I’ve had to struggle with, because I am good at it — and there are times when it’s so convenient to lie. The fact that I learned the habit at an early age means it’s sometimes a first impulse, so it’s frequently difficult to force myself to be consistent with my values. What I’ve learned, though, is that when I’m being dishonest, I feel dirty and wrong. I feel bad about myself, not just while I’m telling the lie, but for days to come.
A new psychology study at the University of Notre Dame seems to back up what I’ve intuitively concluded. The study’s authors conclude that being more truthful leads to better physical and mental health.
“We found that the participants could purposefully and dramatically reduce their everyday lies, and that in turn was associated with significantly improved health,” said lead author Anita Kelly, a Notre Dame psychology professor whose research includes the study of secrets and self-disclosure.
The study — about the “Science of Honesty” — tracked two groups of people over a 10-week period. Those in one group were asked to reduce the lies they told (major and minor), while the control group received no such instructions. Those who reported lying less experienced fewer symptoms such as feeling tense or melancholy. They also reported fewer physical health issues such as sore throats and headaches.
It’s not surprising to me that the study also reported positive results for participants’ personal relationships, among those who reduced their lying. They reported improved relationships overall and they said their social interactions went more smoothly when they didn’t lie to other people.
It seems to me that when we start being dishonest with others, we end up confused about the truth ourselves. And as we’re confused about the truth, we tell more lies and we don’t feel as though we’re grounded in things we believe in. It takes a mental and physical toll to be a liar. I’ve tried it both ways and I know from painful experience that it’s not worth it.
Living a lie — both in big ways and in small ways — takes a toll on us. It changes us. And you eventually have to decide to be a liar or you have to decide to set it aside and live the truth, no matter what it costs.
Dale Moffitt said something that I find to be true. He said, “As you get older, you either get better at telling yourself the truth or at lying to yourself.” My experience is that if you’re telling lies to other people — either with your lips or with the ways you’re living — you’re getting yourself better at self-deception. You’re immersing yourself deeper and deeper into the lies.
It’s a very human thing to lie. (After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, one of the first things they did was to start lying.) I don’t know of anyone who’s ever completely defeated deception in his own life. But even if you don’t care about morality or ethics, you might want to consider fighting to get rid of deception — for your own physical and mental health.
I’m happier and feel better when I know I’m being honest. Even though it can be painful at times to tell the truth, it’s worth it. And I’m not lying about that.