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Lies and Happiness

March 18, 2008

Radiolab is one of National Public Radio’s most interesting syndications. Combining popular psychology, speculative curiosity, and winsome humor, the show’s once-a-week broadcast is as close to a “can’t live without” as anything on NPR.

A recent broadcast plumbed the intricacies of deception. The whole episode is fascinating, but the final segment is one of the most enlightening artifacts of post-modernism I have ever come across.

Harold Sackeim and Ruben Gur are two psychiatrists who have closely studied self-deception. In their experiments, they first wanted to demonstrate that a person could actually have two experiences at once (subconciousness?). To do so, they recorded a test subject saying, “Come here.” Then they had the test subject listen to a reel of voices saying, “Come here,” in which was embedded his or her own voice. They found that many subjects could not pick out their own voice. However, the subjects’ physiological indicators—pulse, blood pressure, and perspiration—would react significantly to the subjects’ voice.So, seemingly, the subjects were having two experiences at once: recognizing and not recognizing their own voices.

Sackeim and Gur took the study to another level by asking subjects embarrassing, personal questions that Sackeim and Gur assumed many people would lie about. The results? The subjects that could not recognize their own voice tended to answer less than honestly the embarrassing questions. Sackeim and Gur consider this correlation to be indicative of the ability to lie to oneself.

Here’s where the episode gets really interesting. These same people that could not recognize their voices and lied on the surveys fared better in lots of others areas of life: sports, business, and, in fact, happiness. Subjects that had, what Sackeim and Gur considered, the ability to self-deceive consistently indicated higher levels of happiness.

From this correlation (self-deception and happiness), Sackeim, Gur, and the folks at Radiolab make some stunning inferences:

“The people that were the happiest were the ones who lied to themselves more,” Sackeim.

“Depressed people lie less,” Robert Krulwich, host.

“It might just be that hiding ideas that we know to be true—hiding those ideas from ourselves—is what we need to get by,” Krulwich.

“We’re so vulnerable to being hurt that we are given the capacity to distort as a gift,” Sackeim.

These conclusions are rife with irony. Apparently, when a culture shifts to relativistic conceptions of truth, the idea of happiness soon follows. Now, ignorance is bliss, and, if we can somehow deceive ourselves about the world around us, we can deceive ourselves about how happy we are.

Throughout the history of the Christian church, however, a much different conception of happiness has reigned. Humans do not achieve happiness through simply ignoring reality. Rather, they experience bliss only when they face reality, specifically, the supremely real one, Jesus Christ. The first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism aptly capture the Christian reality of happiness:

Question: What is your only comfort in life and death?

Answer. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    January 13, 2010 5:57 am

    lies and happiness. what a similar conclusion that I have come to.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    January 18, 2010 6:58 pm

    Isn’t faith, believing in something with no proof, a way of lying to yourself?

  3. June 24, 2010 5:39 am

    That’s right; true happiness comes when we shed ourselves of our illusions and simply take faith that when we die we’re going somewhere really lovely, thanks to a man who could walk on water. 🙂

  4. Bill S. permalink
    June 28, 2010 12:11 pm

    If there is a creator, and he favors those who are most able to deceive themselves, and those who see the world more truly are often more miserable, then is not the creator the lord of lies and the universe we live in is actually hell?

    I would be most interested in seeing the results of these studies from cultures that have had little or no contact with western cultures. Guilt is a common theme in many western and eastern belief systems. Maybe you can have them give the test to those south american native tribes that were talked about in the numbers podcast.

  5. What? permalink
    March 5, 2011 7:40 pm

    Happiness is self-reported, in this experiment and generally. Do you propose to define my feelings of happiness for me and discount my own opinion?

  6. Intern in Hesperia permalink
    February 14, 2013 10:09 pm

    We all have our own definition of reality, pain, happiness etc…Therefore, it nearly impossible to imagine, dictate, or predict, each person’s reality as we all come from a variety of cultures, beliefs, and realities. I would have to do further studies. But, I must admit, it is interesting..

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