Some Honest Health Advice for the New Year: Tell the Truth

The more willing we are to tell the truth about how we feel, what we see and what we want, the easier it becomes and the more likely we are to realize the health benefits - to our bodies, to our relationships and yes, even to our businesses. Telling the truth is the honest path to better health.
01/08/2015 02:48 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

It's never more evident than at the start of a new year: the list of healthy habits we seek is both exhaustive and exhausting, seemingly impossible to realize in one's lifetime.

Fortunately, not all healthy habits are created equal. While flossing is unlikely to positively impact our relationships, behaviors on the periphery such as meditation and gratitude, are getting more attention for their broad health effects. Alongside these and habits like whole food eating, integrated movement and adequate sleep, another habit may soon join the ranks of habits-with-more-bang-for-your-effort-buck: honesty.

Before we look at the health implications of lying, let's be honest: we all lie. Even the most virtuous among us is likely to reply "good" when the barista asks how our day is going, stretch reality when running late to meet a friend or exaggerate a story for effect. According to Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting, the average person lies at least 10 times per day.

We don't think about it much, and even if we do, we certainly don't think it matters much. Most of us assume white lies do no harm to the recipient and may even be deliberately for their benefit. However, what about the benefit or harm to ourselves, the fibber?

The truth is, attempts to avoid ruffling feathers or to win favor might not be as innocent as we assume. In "What Lying Actually Does To Your Brain," Adam Dachis shares that while many lies seem harmless, our subconscious efforts to alleviate our discomfort when what we say, do and think are not aligned may actually cause us to act in ways we don't intend.

Lying has physical ramifications, too. Stretching the truth expends unnecessary energy. Instead of simply recalling what happened, Dachis says, "When you lie you have to consider what you're trying to hide, figure out a believable version of the opposite, give a convincing performance to sell that lie, and then remember it for the rest of eternity." The lie detector test itself doesn't measure lies, but rather signs of stress that accompany telling them. Research shows significant harmful effects of stress on our health. Notre Dame researchers Anita Kelly and LiJuan Wang found that people who had lied less often over a ten-week study reported improved relationships, better sleep, less tension, and fewer headaches or sore throats.

You may still think saying "good" to your neighbor when you really mean "overwhelmed" or "exhausted" is not a big deal, so let me offer one more consequence, perhaps the most damaging of all: forfeiting what you need most.

When you don't share how you're really doing, you do yourself a disservice. You decrease probability of getting something that could improve your wellbeing and cut off any chance that another person will offer much needed empathy or an unexpected solution, let you off the hook for an unwelcome obligation or even join in celebrating an achievement. As author Karen Salmansohn puts it, "By not sharing what's going on deep down, you build surface-level relationships that can be lonely and unsatisfying." How often do we turn to easy answers rather than address what's going on with our relationships or our workplace or our bodies?

In the spirit of practicing healthy habits rather than simply talking about them, I'll take this opportunity to share honestly. In two weeks, I will be closing the business I started and have run for the last three years. Of course, it was a tough decision; letting go of a brand and product I built and the customer relationships I nurtured is a tremendous sacrifice. However, the hardest part has been acknowledging, both to others and myself, the surprisingly simple truth: running my business no longer energizes me.

My company is a healthy food business. Over the past year, I've grown increasingly passionate about promoting health beyond food and fitness and have diverged from my company's core mission. I have felt at times like I was bicycling through mud and not confronting my lack of enthusiasm kept me pedaling. After all, as a society, we glorify leaving a "corporate" job to pursue what we love but what about leaving what we loved to pursue what we now love? Contrary to the overstated lore that 8 in 10 businesses fail, I suspect other founders have had to face this hard truth and decide whether to part with a profitable model and loyal customers to pursue another mission.

How many of us act in unintended ways, negatively impact our health and delay getting what we need because of an inability to be honest, starting with ourselves?

Of course, honesty isn't black and white; it's useful and even necessary at times. Being honest isn't easy as it can be uncomfortable, says author Keith Ferrazzi, but the discomfort is likely temporary. UCLA researcher Matthew Lieberman discovered that the simple act of putting feelings into words can help calm the emotion by 50 percent.

This may be why Sam Harris, who wrote a book on the matter of Lying and its impact on trust, says, "Honesty is like a super power." The more willing we are to tell the truth about how we feel, what we see and what we want, the easier it becomes and the more likely we are to realize the health benefits - to our bodies, to our relationships and yes, even to our businesses. Telling the truth is the honest path to better health this year.