I’ve Been Thinking … About Integrity
I’ve Been Thinking … About Integrity
My life goal right now is to be just one thing. I don’t mean a Nobel Prize winner or a tycoon, I mean literally just one thing, a single being, consistent in all times and places. Because that’s the literal definition of the word “integrity.”
After decades of study and observation, I’ve come to see integrity as the single quality most necessary for happiness. This isn’t a moral judgment so much as a mechanical one: just as an airplane needs structural integrity to fly without crashing, we need it to live without crashing. Research shows that when we lie, hide, or keep secrets, we suffer and falter. We can’t think as clearly, our relationships weaken, our moods go sour, and our health deteriorates.
But people like us don’t lie, right? Not much, anyway. The odd white lie, no big deal. Well, things might not be so innocent. A study at the University of Massachusetts found that 60 percent of people can’t have a 10-minute conversation without lying a few times. And they didn’t even register that they were lying until they watched videotapes of themselves.
I read all this research years ago, when I’d suffered more than a decade of chronic pain from poorly-understood autoimmune conditions. So I put myself on something I call an “integrity cleanse.” My first cleanse was simple: I didn’t tell a single lie, not one, for a year.
It was quite the adventure. I had to think on my feet, finding ways to be polite and honest. People who didn’t like this drifted away from me, and I drifted (well, lurched) away from my job, my home, my childhood religion, and everything else that wasn’t based on authenticity.
On the other hand, I found trustworthy companions, a career I adore to this day, and a solid sense of my life’s meaning. And my various illnesses—which I’d been told were “progressive and incurable”—went into almost total remission.
You might want to try a sample-sized integrity cleanse yourself. Try watching yourself have a 10-minute conversation. Without judging or attacking yourself (this is about happiness, not guilt) see if you prevaricate, spin, or outright deny the truth. Do you say, “I feel great!” when you don’t? Do you offer praise you don’t actually believe? Most lies are well-meant and don’t hurt anyone but ourselves. They’re still lies.
If you’re brave enough to acknowledge that you’re telling fibs (or whoppers) you can try a next step: tell only the pure truth for an hour, a day, even a week at a time. You may say less—or nothing—at moments when you once thought you had to speak up. You might dare to express differences with those around you, and see what happens when you do.
What has happened to me, and others who have taken on integrity cleansing, is that life begins to head in a healthier direction. When we set out to live in integrity, when we avoid even the little white lies we tell to please others, our bodies relax. Our hearts grow stronger. Our true selves emerge, and begin to live without splitting or hiding.
After years of integrity cleansing, I’m still nowhere near perfect, but I’m more conscious of places I fall out of my truth. I’m braver about owning my errors, apologizing for failure to be utterly honest, and climbing back on the wagon. I can feel myself growing calmer, steadier, and healthier in body and soul.
Even a tiny, 10-minute integrity cleanse subtly turns our lives in the direction of authenticity. Repeating the process—noticing where we’re not absolutely honest and owning it—rapidly shows us where we’ve fractured ourselves. Acknowledging to ourselves the truths we’ve been afraid to tell begins to unify us, until we’re like an airplane engine with all its parts aligned. Try this, not so you can please others or follow some moral code, but so that your life can work better. So you can feel what it’s like to fly.
Martha Beck is a best-selling author and life coach. For more from her, go here.