We've all experienced moments when we feel completely present with another person in conversation. And then before we realize it, the connection is lost, and it becomes an effort to stay interested. But what brought about the connection? What dissolved it? It often comes down to our choice — or lack of conscious choice — of words.
Have you used the word "always" in the last week? What about "never"? The only always that's true is that there is always an exception to always and never. And the only never that's true is that there is never a truly knowable never. For those of you who don't live alone, the following sentences may be familiar to you:
"You never listen." That's a lie. Everybody who can hear listens to at least something; otherwise, it would be impossible to learn how to speak. So what's the honest version?
"I don't feel like you are listening to me right now."
"You always forget to take the trash out." Lie. The honest version? "You didn't take the trash out this week or the week before last."
"You always make stupid comments." Lie. The truth? "I resent you for saying that Kim Kardashian's butt is real and amazing."
These are some examples of inconspicuous and unconscious lies that disconnect us from ourselves and from one another. But we're all good people here, right? We don't tell lies! No! That's a lie! Every single person — myself included — is at least an occasional unconscious liar. But even little lies demoralize.
Why moralizing is demoralizing:
Words that demoralize also include de-moral-lies. Moralizing, as it turns out, is just demoralizing without the "de." Have you uttered a sentence today containing the word "should"? It doesn't matter if it was "I should" or "I shouldn't": "I shouldn't have another coffee; I should go to bed earlier; I should be good."
"Shoulding" yourself is an example of moralizing: trying to model your existence around rules made up by your mind — rules that your ego identifies with. Moralizing has nothing to do with happiness. It has everything to do with ego, and ego has everything to do with happiness traps (ego tries to grow and value itself through identification with, and acquisition of, labels, money, and material things to gain proof of a physical existence).
Ego is just a creation of our imagination. And if it's not real, it's not honest. So what's the alternative for the shoulds? I spent some time with a vegan friend over the weekend, so I'll use this as an example. I was explaining to her that I've noticed myself feeling more sluggish after my cappuccino-induced caffeine buzz wears off. I have two choices in how I express myself next. I could say:
"I should stop eating dairy" or I could use any of the following more specific (and honest) sentences: "I could try giving up dairy." "I want to try almond milk," or even, "I need to give up milk if I want to stop feeling crappy after my coffee." Any one of these three sentences is more connected to my truth than a shitty should.
I've spent the last five years studying happiness. My goal has been to translate psychology and philosophy into exercises for happiness. Through this process, I discovered that happiness means connecting well with existence (and other people) and that there are five ways (or muscles) that help you do it. In my book, The Happiness Animal, I describe honesty as the first of those conduits to happiness. Indeed, one man, my friend and mentor Dr. Brad Blanton, feels that honesty is so important that he has dedicated his life to helping clients exercise radical honesty, and he has written eight books and run countless workshops on the subject.
One of the main reasons honesty is so important is trust. Trust is important because happiness cannot exist without it. I ran an online survey to poll 700 people globally, asking them to choose the best definition of happiness. The list of definitions I provided was not intended to be exhaustive, but the poll results surprised me. I had taken one of the definitions from an online dictionary: "trust and confidence" and the majority voted this as the best definition of happiness.
This is less surprising when you take a look at the United Nations World Happiness Report, which reveals social trust is a strong determinant of life evaluations and a strong support for subjective well-being. The erosion of institutional trust in countries like Greece has led to exceptionally large well-being losses. But you can offset a lack of institutional trust by improving trust in your personal relationships. By being honest, you increase others' trust of you and vice versa.
The truth is funny:
The truth doesn't just set us free from moralizing chains. It doesn't just connect us to one another and help us live happier lives. It also happens to be funny. Take Louis CK, voted the funniest person alive: "It's easy to get the body you want; you just have to want a really shitty body."
Honesty helps us to connect with both ourselves and others. Happiness is connecting well. So, I'm going to leave you with a plea: Let's start paying close attention to, and connecting well with, the words we are using. Honesty isn't just telling the truth; it's being very specific in the way we tell the truth. Let's connect with our words. The more specific our sentences, the fewer the labels, generalizations, and comparisons, the better the connection to truth, to each other, and to our happiness.
I just started writing my fourth book. My mission for this book is to expose words that disconnect from our honest expression of whatever it is we are trying to express and expose the words that connect us well. Our words can connect us, or disconnect us, slowly erode our honesty and happiness, or fuel the flame of joy.