Throughout every day of the semester, you must speak honestly, truthfully, and sincerely—not only about the big things, but also about the small things, such as why you were late. You must always mean what you say in situations where your statements are to be taken seriously, as opposed to when joking or obviously exaggerating. While you certainly can choose not to answer questions, you must always mean what you say.
This pledge is the product of my psychology professor’s research on sincerity. Anita Kelly, Professor of Psychology, and her research partners have found significant reason to believe that honesty in “the small things” leads to decreased physical ailments including headaches, stomachaches, and colds. If you are interested in her research, please see the information below. In any case, Kelly encourages all of her students to take the pledge by attaching extra credit to journal entries about our resulting experiences.
Notre Dame students rarely pass up the opportunity to earn extra credit. But I can honestly (honestly) say that I would take this opportunity—to have someone hold me accountable for my honesty—even if no extra credit were offered. I would like to invite you to do the same.
Kelly’s ideas concern much more than the potential physical benefits of telling the truth. Perhaps decreasing guilt and dissonance frees up our minds to fight off SAD or the flu. But I see other—arguably more important—benefits, like increased openness to learning from other people and awareness of one’s self. And aren’t those the reasons we attend university? Aren’t those major components of happiness?
Honesty is the best policy for a number of reasons.
First, it helps us avoid getting caught in a lie. This includes being misunderstood because we failed to make our intentions or expectations clear. As the Outkast artist André serenades a beautiful woman in the song “Hey Ya!” he admits that he has no desire to “meet her daddy.” “I’m, I’m just bein’ honest,” he says.
Though this is a somewhat crass example, we can all relate. When asked to take on another role in the dorm, club, or work environment, too often we say, “maybe!” or, “probably!” when what we are thinking is “definitely not.” By being sincere, we can eliminate some unnecessary awkwardness from our days.
Second, honesty in the small things hopefully leads to fewer regrets at the end of each day. John Mayer urges us to “say what we need to say.” Ultimately, though, that line of thinking is selfish. “Get off your chest whatever you need to;” “vent”—even though Freud’s theory of catharsis has been largely disproven. Venting frustration or anger does not actually decrease hostile behavior.
But sincerity is not necessarily venting. It is better communication. You have to be sincere with a conversational partner; you can’t be sincere with a pillow and pummel its guts out and expect to feel any better. I think the reason (if it is true) that sincerity leads to health benefits is that it increases the extent to which a person must think about what is true, so that he or she can speak accordingly.
Third, there is something that feels good about knowing that we have integrity and could stand up to an interrogation. We like consistency and demand it in particular from our loved ones. The sincerity exercise can help us be consistent by demanding it from ourselves. This plays out in all the “small things.”
For example, “hihowareyougoodhowareyougood” can be a very friendly encounter, especially if both people’s tones of voice are emphatic or kind. But I hear that kind, vapid exchange far too often here at Notre Dame. We can do better.
So far I have not yet acknowledged how difficult it can be to tell the truth. Sometimes it creates awkwardness or hurts someone’s feelings. What about keeping the peace? Holding our tongues? “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” That nugget of wisdom endures for good reason.
It is important to note that meaning what you say is not the same as having no filter. We can choose when and how to phrase the truth, and whether to speak it at all, unless silence would be deceptive.
Sincerity is difficult. Usually our motivation comes from the hope that someone else will at least appreciate it, if not reciprocate. Thus I think, with John Mayer, that we should say what we need to say, but not primarily because we need it; rather we should be sincere because it makes life better for everyone. It vastly improves the quality of interactions among people, even the short and seemingly unimportant ones.
Let’s help each other out and do our best to say what we mean. Otherwise—let’s be honest—we’re wasting each other’s time, and maybe even giving each other unnecessary headaches.
For more information on Anita Kelly’s research, see the Psychology Today article from 8 August 2014 entitled “Study: Telling the Truth May Actually Improve Your Health.”
Becca Self is a junior studying political science and education. She is looking for a training buddy for the Holy Half Marathon in March, but if the weather dips back down to South Bend’s status quo, she might not be. Just being honest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.