Honesty Isn’t Just Moral, But Good For You


It was my first semester in college, and my friend — let’s call her Grace — missed her work-study shift at the campus gym. It was one of those lame campus jobs that didn’t really require any effort; it was only created for the sole purpose of the work-study program. There was a good chance no one noticed her absence — but that didn’t stop Grace from owning up to her mistake to her boss the next morning.

She could have said a lot of things. The campus director probably had heard all the excuses on the planet — sickness, exams, schedule mix-up, etc. — but Grace was a really honest 18-year-old. 

“I told him I purposely didn’t go to the shift because I hung out with those guys outside our dorm instead,” she told me with assertive, frank confidence. 

“You — what?!” I choked. I couldn’t believe it. I’d never heard of that kind of honesty — ever. “Um, so what did he say?” I asked.

“He said, ‘Thank you for telling me the truth.’” She kept her job — and apparently gained her boss’ respect.

Lying is bad — we’ve known this since we were able to watch Pinocchio. Fibbing is wrong, and those who profit through lies are making really bad choices — deserving of having really large snouts or being shipped off to cursed islands to become a sad donkey

But on top of that moral conviction, there’s growing evidence to show that lying is actually bad for our bodies, too. Yep, you read that right. Lying isn’t just something that Moses forbade his people to do — it’s also bad for our emotional and physical health.

How much do we lie?

The whopping majority of us aren’t like Grace — we average 11 lies per week. And most of us don’t really feel all that bad about it. Or do we? 

Most of us have lied since we could reason or talk: No, Dad, I did not hit my brother! Yes, Mom — I ate all my beans. It’s as if we commit this kind of manipulation instinctively because we want to protect ourselves from shame or pain, assert our independence, or simply make ourselves sound cooler than we are. 

But the lies evolve as we do. Friends fudge their resumes — and get great jobs. Coworkers fabricate stories — and get great sales commissions. Certain mortgage companies trade off half-truths — and cause the global economy to crash.

And let me remind you, most of these people have well-proportioned noses. 

So what’s wrong with a little lie here or there? Isn’t it just a necessary evil we must commit to get by? Can’t the good of a lie outweigh its minor immorality?

The studies

A few years ago, Anita Kelly and Lijuan Wang published a study with the University of Notre Dame titled, “A Life Without Lies: How Living Honestly Can Affect Health.”

In their experiment, they instructed subjects to be sincere and stop telling lies — including those small, pesky “white” ones.They discovered that when people did this, their physical and mental health improved, and not by a little. 

“Specifically, they had experienced an average of seven fewer symptoms such as sore throats, headaches, nausea that week,” concludes Kelly. “Because the only difference between the two groups was the sincerity instructions, we can conclude that these instructions actually caused the health benefit.”

Essentially, she and her researchers deduced that when people acted more honestly, they felt better about themselves and their relationships — which created much healthier conditions for them to live in. 

But it there’s more to it. 

Lying takes up more energy

While lying might seem innate to our human character, it’s actually not. “Honesty is our default mode,” Xiaoqing Hu told Discover magazine — he’s a psychology doctoral candidate at Northwestern University. “When telling a lie, you have to inhibit the honest response and activate a dishonest response.” And brain scans confirm this theory. When telling a lie, our brains have to work a little harder because lying is a bit more cognitively demanding. It’s taking up brain real estate. 

Let’s pretend you’ve lied about something relatively minor — like your college GPA. Now, so you don’t contradict yourself, you must actively remember this number and the people you’ve shared it with. Remembering this interaction is actually more difficult than remembering your actual GPA because you’re creating conflicting neuron pathways. 

On top of this, your brain is actively trying to make a compelling deception, so you’re acting. Maybe you try to make eye contact in a way that seems more credible. Maybe you’re trying to act calm and cool. Whatever you’re doing, you’re definitely monitoring the exchange more closely as you second-guess yourself, all while wondering if your audience is buying it. 

Maybe these are small things, but it’s a lot of expended in energy for one exchange. According to researchers at Berkeley, your blood pressure and heart rate might rise, along with the stress hormone cortisol. And the brainpower required only grows the more you lie. Forced to be on your toes, ready to “get in character,” your guard is already up before the questions even happen, confirming what Abraham Lincoln once said: “No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.”

Lying isolates, hiding who you really are 

Vulnerability has been a buzzword in the relationship realm in the past few years, and for good reason! Real human vulnerability brings us closer to each other — it sparks a natural empathetic response with others, making us more attuned to commonalities and worldviews. This sets the stage for intimacy, which allows people to reveal who they really are and where they’re coming from. 

So, if you’re lying, not only are you preventing yourself from engaging in real, intimate connections, you’re also isolating yourself in your falsehood. This compounds insecurities, making you feel like your real self is not enough. 

Intimacy in relationships is actually crucial to our mental health and is the antidote to loneliness that plagues our culture. Dr. Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital and the current director of the famous Harvard Study of Adult Development, an ongoing analysis of more than 700 men who were teenagers in 1938. He explained that intimate relationships are key to our mental health and subsequent happiness. “People who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected,” said Waldinger. 

What can you do to stop lying?

The good news? Committing yourself to start telling the truth isn’t asking the impossible. But it does involve some courage — especially if white lies are your M.O. But remember, living an honest life doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be an open book and share all the details in your life. You still can be discrete in your choices and tactful in your responses. Ultimately, the goal isn’t to spill the beans, just to be more intentional and sincere with your actions. 

As Anita Kelly explains, “Being sincere is a process and you will get there with practice. And when you do, you will see that you are becoming more humble, more open to learning, and less sensitive to rejection. Being sincere brings you closer to the decent people you know, pushes away the naysayers, and allows you to feel a certain hopefulness about the world.”


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