I pride myself on being a realist. It is one of the reasons I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions: I know it is unlikely that I will make significant changes in my life simply by brute force. After all, it takes me all of January just to write the correct date. Last year, I wrote out 12 things I hoped might happen in the year 2014. Approximately 2.5 of these came true. I did not do 100 consecutive push-ups. I did not qualify for the Boston Marathon. I did, however, find an awesome apartment with my partnerand I started writing consistently. I am also now quasi-conversational in Spanish if the person with whom I am speaking is less than three years old. A New Year’s wish list is more my speed. There’s no real expectation or accountability in it, so there’s less chance of disappointment.
Like I said, I’m proud to be a realist. After all, being honest and pragmatic with oneself must be a good thing because, for one, lying is bad. Two, there are so very many idioms confirming that realism is the best: “be realistic,” “set realistic goals,” “get your head out of the clouds.” Right? Well, it turns out that honesty like that may not always be the best policy.
I was listening to a Radiolab podcast recently called “Deception.”
I was particularly intrigued when they came to the topic of self-deception. Self-deception is when a person is holding two contradictory beliefs, but is only allowing one of those beliefs into his consciousness – whichever one he likes better, even though it is not true. To look at self-deception, researchers asked people very personal questions like, “Have you ever enjoyed having a bowel movement?” and “Have you ever doubted your sexual adequacy?” The researchers assumed that, if people were totally honest with themselves, they would answer “yes” to all these questions. On the other hand, the people who answered “no” were lying to themselves. The researchers found an interesting correlation: those who answered “no” to these questions were more likely to be successful in life. I don’t know if the researchers took into account that, in general, it may not be advantageous for a person to openly admit that they enjoy pooping or think they are not all that great in bed. However, this phenomenon has been shown many times with athletes. An athlete who believes he will win is more likely to win. When he then wins, it confirms his belief that he is a winner, boosting his confidence that he will win again. The result is a cycle well-known to losers.
Not only are self-deceivers more likely to be successful, they are also more likely to be happy. Research has shown that depressed people are terrible at self-deception. They call it like it is, and unfortunately, it’s often rather abysmal. On the other hand, people who lie to themselves a little are better able to enjoy life.
There goes my life philosophy out the window. This explains so much about why I tend towards depression and why I never win races (although I did come in second in a schoolyard race when I was seven). When I go into a competition, be it athletic, musical, or academic, I tend to believe that, yes, I might win, but there are lots of other good people who might win. That is the sad truth. Therefore, I think things like, “I’ll try my best,” which is a way for me to put a positive, yet honest, spin on the my not winning.
This information raises so many questions for me about faith, miracles, and God. But my most pressing question is this: Am I, as a realist, doomed forever to live an honest, yet miserable life? Or can I learn to believe my own lies?
I find myself praying some version of the Doubter’s Prayer on this first of January. I have little faith in myself and scant hope for this world. However, I have the faith and confidence to believe that I might one day believe I am a winner. I might eventually believe the little lies that would make me happier and more hopeful. So my New Year’s Resolution for 2015? Try to be less realistic.