How to Improve Your Life With Honesty

Most people who meditate started meditating for practical reasons. They had high blood pressure or insomnia or an explosive temper. They read the abundance of scientific research showing that regular meditation can measurably improve physical and mental health, and they began.

But some of these people, after they have meditated for awhile, find meaning in the practice. They find spiritual value — something beyond the immediate, practical benefits. Something more profound. The practice of honesty may be that way for you.

Not as much research has been done on the benefits of honesty, but what has been done points to significant and wide-ranging benefits, mainly on your health and your relationships. I'll talk about those shortly.

This article has three sections. In the first section, we'll be looking at what benefits you will gain from honesty. We'll look at what has been discovered by researchers.

In the second section, you'll learn some useful ideas about how to make your honesty easier on both you and on the person you're talking to. Some of these ideas make a huge difference in whether your honesty increases the pleasure you get out of life or makes your life a living hell. Honesty is powerful, and needs to be handled with intelligence and skill.

The third section is about a deeper, more complete honesty. It is a translation of the essay, Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It's about being true to your deep self, being true to your purpose, fulfilling your potential, expressing your gifts. It's about being what George Bernard Shaw called "a force of nature rather than a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy." This is where honesty becomes a spiritual path; it becomes a way to peace and contentment and fulfillment — not only personal fulfillment, but fulfillment of what we might call your destiny.

But, you may be thinking, Emerson was an American. Why would his essay need to be translated?

I translated Self-Reliance from its original eloquent, poetic prose (filled with words no longer in common use) into modern, readable English. After reading my translation (click here to read it), I hope you find yourself a copy of Emerson's original version and read it with more understanding. That essay is the most powerful piece of writing on deep honesty I've ever come across.

The best way to use this article is to take the principle that really stands out for you right now and practice it. Make it the thing you're doing these days. Have the principle printed onto a dog tag and wear it around your neck, or have some other way of reminding yourself. If you choose one that doesn't take a lot of time, and you want faster improvement, you can pick another one and practice that one too. Keep adding principles until you start to get uncomfortable or it seems too much, and then drop what seems like the least important one. Relax and have a good time with this. Deep honesty can be an enjoyable and deeply rewarding lifelong spiritual practice.

Another way to approach this material is to look though it when you're experiencing a problem in your life and find something you are not doing that really needs to be done. Stop there and start applying that principle in earnest. Make it your hobby to apply that one until it is part of your life.

The practice of honesty is difficult at times, but you are creating a new level of being, a new way of life, and you'll have a higher level of satisfaction, contentment and challenge than you are used to. It's great, and it exacts a great price.

The most likely alternative to deep honesty — the other end of the spectrum — is a safe, wasted, hidden, lonely unlived life. Is that what you were afraid of? You can start doing something about it today. Let's get started.


This section started when a talk show called me to ask if I'd be willing to be a guest on a program called Is Honesty the Best Policy? In preparing myself to talk to the producer about it, I looked over the information I'd collected over the years and looking at it all at once like this, I realized this subject had not been covered the way I think it deserves to be covered. So I wrote this this article.

I haven't always been honest. When I first met Klassy, my wife, who has been honest her whole life, she had a difficult time getting me to open up and be more honest. It was a rough ride for both of us. But I am glad I became more honest. By not pretending, by speaking up about what I want and what I feel, by allowing myself to be what I am without apology, I have become a better, happier, more relaxed person, and my relationship with Klassy is closer than I've ever experienced with anyone, by a long shot. And, according to the studies, my health is better, too. Let's look at some of the research.

more closeness in relationships

One of the biggest advantages of becoming more honest is that your relationships will be closer. That is, you'll have a greater feeling of connection to the people you're honest with and you'll feel more love for them. John Gottman, a researcher at the University of Washington and the author of The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships, found to his surprise that some couples who avoid disagreements stay together. Yes, you read that right. These marriages are "successful" in the sense that they are long-lasting. But Gottman also found they are lonely marriages.

You can avoid conflict by hiding your likes and dislikes, but you forfeit closeness. Part of feeling close to someone is that they know you. And the only way for someone to get to know you is for you to be honest.

It's ironic that the main reason people avoid conflict is because they want to be loved. We pretend to be what we aren't, to like what we don't like, we don't speak up about what we really want or feel. We don't want disagreements. We don't want to be rejected. We don't want to hurt the other person or be hurt by them. We want love.

But, as Klassy has told me many times, love flows on a communication line. Communication is like a pipeline between two people. The more open we are, the more open the pipeline. And this same pipeline is how love and affection flow from one person to another, so the more open the pipeline, the more love and affection can flow through it.

By hiding parts of themselves, people narrow the pipeline, thus closing off the very thing that they want in their attempt to get it.

Become more open and honest with the people you love, and you open the channel. You'll experience greater love and affection.

relationships improve over time

Another thing Gottman discovered about "avoidant couples" (couples who tend to avoid disagreement) is that when they first get married, they were happier than honest couples. They were happier with their marriage.

But three years later, the situation had reversed. The avoidant couples weren't as satisfied with their marriage and more of them had divorced or were headed for divorce. And the more honest, open couples were now happier with their marriages because their marriages had improved.

Honesty helps relationships improve. Honesty allows problems to be solved. You can't solve a problem if you don't really know what it's about! It's like two people trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle when one of you has some pieces in your pocket. It doesn't matter how committed you are or how hard you try, you will never be able to solve that puzzle. Honesty helps relationships improve over time.

higher quality people in your life

Julian Rotter of the University of Connecticut compared the social lives of habitually honest people with the social lives of people who agreed with statements like You have to hide your feelings from others and You can't afford to be honest. He found that honest people had a tendency to attract trustworthy, truthful, supportive people into their lives. The less honest people tended to attract disloyal, evasive, unreliable people into their lives.

Your honesty literally repels dishonest people away from you and attracts honest people to you. Dishonesty repels honest people and attracts dishonest people into your life.

So simply by becoming more honest, the quality of the people you interact with will improve over time.

better physical health

Researchers have studied this one quite a bit. The leader of the pack is James Pennebaker of Southern Methodist University, author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have helped fund his research. Pennebaker found that people who habitually withhold information about themselves, especially about traumatic events, are much more susceptible to contagious diseases than people who are more open and honest.

One qualification you should know about is that you should only reveal your honesty to people you can trust. But given that limitation, honesty improves your immune system. It's good for your physical health.

better mental health

In a survey of 425 psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, and marriage and family counselors, almost all of them (96%) thought that becoming more "open, genuine, and honest" was an essential requirement for mental health. Let me point out that they didn't merely think honesty was a good idea. These people, who spend every day working with peoples' real-life problems, are convinced that honesty is essential for mental health. A requirement.

Of course. Think about it. Sanity entails dealing with reality. Honesty is about reality. It's about admitting the truth to yourself and also admitting it to others. Honesty equals sanity. Deceit and pretense are bad for your mental health.

feel better in general

In a study by Santa Clara University in California, researchers found that people who habitually keep secrets, especially about embarrassing or painful experiences, tend to suffer from

more colds
more fatigue
more aches and pains

And they have higher levels of depression and anxiety. Dishonesty produces unpleasant side-effects. Becoming more honest will make you feel better in general.

suffer less stress

The reason a needle jumps around so much on a lie detector is that lying is stressful. So is pretending, withholding, and misleading. If a person is dishonest with a stranger, the event is only temporarily stressful. But in a close relationship, the deceit needs to be maintained, which causes prolonged stress.

You can't relax and be yourself when you're hiding and pretending.

Often honesty causes conflict, which also causes stress. But greater honesty will lower your stress level in the long run. Problems get solved. You no longer have the ongoing stress of hiding and pretending.


When you're honest, people tend to trust you. I have seen no scientific studies on this, but I'll bet the research will eventually prove it true. People can sense honesty.

And when you're honest, you trust yourself more. It takes a certain amount of discipline to be honest and in the demonstration of your honesty, you learn you can count on yourself. So another side-effect of being honest is that you'll feel better about yourself.

Become more honest and people will trust you more. And you'll trust yourself and feel better about yourself.


Honesty is honesty, and it really needs no skill. However, to make your honesty easier on the people you love, to make it easier for them, to make it less likely to cause a divorce, to make sure it doesn't get you fired, there are some useful things to know. Here they are:

the transformation of criticism

Never criticize. That is one of the most important rules for skillful honesty. It seems that this rule would prevent you from being honest, but it doesn't. One way to avoid criticizing is to become less honest: keep your mouth shut or lie about what you really feel. The other way to avoid criticizing is to become more honest.

The fact is, a criticism is not an honest statement. Remember that. A criticism is not honest. "You are an inconsiderate jerk" is not an honest statement; it's a criticism.

A criticism tends to be an overgeneralization rather than an accurate statement. It also tends to attack the person rather than the action.

You can immediately improve your honesty and make your communication more productive by upgrading your criticisms into complaints. I don't like it when you forget my birthday is more honest than You are an inconsiderate jerk. It's more honest and it's easier for the person to listen to. It's easier to accept. It's less likely to cause an upset or an argument.

You can take it a step further and upgrade your criticism to a request. Now we're really getting direct and effective. I want you to make it up to me; I want you to take me out to dinner. A request is an honest, direct statement of what you want. It is kinder, more respectful, and future-oriented. It is even easier to hear than a complaint because you're not talking about the past (which has already happened and which you cannot change), you're talking about the future. There is no blame in the future and something can be done about it.

I can't emphasize it enough: Criticism is not honesty. You don't care about me is not an honest statement. It is an accusation and an attempt at mind reading. Be more accurate: When you forgot my birthday, I felt sad. I still feel sad, because the only way I can imagine myself forgetting your birthday is if I didn't care about you anymore.

Accusations and criticisms are not honest expressions. To turn them into honest statements, try this rule of thumb: Make your sentences start with I feel or I want. But that simple technique won't work by itself. You have to make sure you're telling the most accurate truth you can. I feel you're an idiot isn't accurate. You're an idiot is not a feeling. Feelings are very basic: Angry, sad, happy, afraid, worried, frustrated, etc.

One of the rules of Buddhism is what they call the practice of nonharming. That is, trying not to harm other living beings. What a beautiful concept. Speaking honestly is a way of "nonharming" yourself, and speaking honestly without blaming or attacking is a way of "nonharming" the listener.

Intelligent, skillful honesty includes upgrading your criticisms to complaints and your complaints to requests.

the 25-minute rule

Try never to discuss anything when you're upset. John Gottman, the researcher from the University of Washington, found that when your heart rate goes above 100 beats per minute, you have so much adrenaline flooding your system that your body is in a fight-or-flight mode. This stressful, all-systems-on-full-alarm state is not a good state to be in when you're trying to work things out with another person.

When you're upset, your point of view becomes narrow and one-sided, your empathy disappears, your perception is distorted, and your level of rationality drops. It is more difficult to be honest when you're upset. And it is much harder for the other person to listen to you.

Honesty needs to be expressed with respect for the other, with appreciation for the point of view of the other. Good basic human relations skills should be used to make honest communications not received in a way that attacks, demeans, or insults the person — in a way that communicates information rather that communicating to punish. Making sure you never try to talk when you're upset is one way to help this happen.

Sometimes when you speak honestly, the listener will get upset. When they get upset, it tends to upset you, and your upset tends to further upset the other in an escalating feedback loop. When you feel yourself getting upset, take a break. You can even go so far as to measure your heart rate. I've done this. I have a watch that measures your heart rate, and once Klassy and I were arguing and I felt a little upset, so I checked my heart rate. It was 120! And I didn't even feel very upset.

The normal, resting heart rate for a man is around 72. For a woman it is 82. If your heart rate is above 100, take a break. Even a slight increase has an effect. Gottman found that when the heart rate rises to only 80 beats per minute for a man and 90 for a woman, "physiological arousal makes it hard to focus on what the other person is saying, which leads to increased defensiveness and hostility." He also found that in a disagreement, a man's heart rate and blood pressure rise much higher than a woman's. Other research shows that although the woman's blood pressure doesn't rise as high in an argument, it remains elevated longer.

One of Gottman's most helpful discoveries is that it takes about 20-25 minutes for the body to calm back down to a normal level after being upset. That's why we recommend taking a break from an upsetting conversation. Then you can come back and talk about it without the being upset.

But when you take a break, don't just go sit in a silent room and run the conversation over and over through your head, proving your point and finding all the reasons your partner is completely out of his or her mind! Your body will never calm down that way. When you take a break, do something that engages your mind. You want to get your mind completely off the argument. Watch TV, read a book, listen to a self-help tape, listen to music, do some engaging work, go for a walk.

But do not suppress your thoughts. Suppressing a thought makes it stronger and more insistent. Simply get involved in something that requires your full attention. Your mind will have to temporarily let the argument go, and then your body can calm down.

I used to really go crazy during arguments with Klassy. I would get so upset I was beside myself. And the intensity of my upset would just make things worse. One of the main things that freaked me out so much was my thought that this might be The End. I somehow assumed that if we were arguing that intensely, it might lead to a divorce.

Klassy rarely got that upset, and now I realize part of it may be simply that she's a woman and not biologically as prone to upset. But I once asked her how she kept from being so upset, and she shared a technique with me that really helped me calm down. She imagines the worst. She also sometimes felt that this argument would lead to divorce, but she didn't suppress the thought, she followed it through. Okay, let's say we get divorced. Then what? She let herself imagine what would happen. We would move to different living places. She imagined what her life would be like without me. She imagined herself going on and finding another, better man, and being happy in the future.

When I tried this, I found it very effective. I faced the horror and realized I would survive and even go on with my life and eventually even have fun — even if this were The End. This made it easier for me to calm down, and kept our fights from getting out of hand. I used it for many years and I can't tell you how many hours of my life I saved by using it. I now pass this excellent technique on to you.

When you have calmed down, think about the situation again. You'll be able to think about it more reasonably. Then go back and continue the conversation. You'll find your discussion is a lot more productive when you're calm. Take a break when it gets heated. This is skillful honesty.

one thing at a time

Probably all of us at one time or another have made this mistake: Avoid speaking up about several things because you don't really want to create an upset. And then something finally snaps and makes you angry. Then, you figure since you already have an upset to deal with, you start bringing up everything else that has bothered you for the last six months. This is a harmful way to be honest. It overwhelms the listener, making it hard to listen. And it is difficult, even in the best of moods, to deal with more than one issue at a time.

The rule is, keep your conversation on one subject at a sitting. Deal with only one issue at a time. When the conversation starts to drift into other subjects, bring it back. Say something like, We can deal with that another time; let's just talk about this one thing for now. Make a note of it if you need to make sure you'll remember.

Anger is a courageous emotion. But it is also destructive and reckless. Many people think that anger should be communicated because it is unhealthy to hold it in. But this is a misrepresentation of the facts.

The expression of the emotion of anger only serves to make you angrier. It does not "vent" it. It doesn't get rid of the feeling. This has been proven several different ways in research, but you can demonstrate it to yourself simply by paying attention.

Withholding the things you want to say in order to avoid dealing with it doesn't work either. It has negative consequences for your health and for your relationships.

But there is a third alternative. You can communicate what you are angry about, but not while you're angry. Think about what is making you angry. Try to turn your criticisms and accusations into honest statements about what you want (requests) and what you feel. And then wait until you feel calm. Then sit down and communicate. That is the sanest, most productive, healthiest way to do it. And talk about one thing at a time.

You'll mess up. We all do. You'll sometimes burst out with anger and be sorry afterwards for some of the things you said, not because they were honest, but because they were overstated and hurtful. When you make a mistake like this, don't criticize yourself either. Make vows about how you will do it in the future. Use all that energy you have, all that intensity, all that bad feeling of being sorry and ashamed and channel it into the future. Channel it into a renewed determination to follow the guidelines in this section. That is the skillful, intelligent way to deal with mistakes.

listen well

When you say something honest, the other person will probably have a reaction to it. Sometimes it is a negative reaction. Sometimes it is a very intensely negative reaction. That is the time to listen. Listen with all your heart. Really listen. By that I mean doing these three things:

1. Give the person your full attention. When your mind wanders, when you have the impulse to say something, when you find yourself criticizing what they're saying, and mentally making a case for "your side," calmly and gently, but firmly bring your mind back to what the person is trying to tell you.

2. Don't interrupt. The temptation is very powerful. But the whole conversation will be so much more productive if you can restrain yourself. Keep listening. You can have your say later. Right now is the time to let them unload themselves. Let them unburden their thoughts. Help them unburden themselves.

3. Let them feel whatever they feel. Don't try to talk them out of feeling that way. Never say or imply You shouldn't feel that way. If that's the way they feel at the moment, that's the way they feel. Accept it. Remind yourself that feelings change. But right now, that's the way they feel. You will hear them making mistakes and criticizing rather than telling you really how they feel. This is not the time to teach them new skills. You can talk about that some other time. Right now try to understand as best as you can what they are feeling.

When you listen well, it helps make your conversations constructive. It helps your discussions get somewhere, accomplish something. Information and understanding will be able to flow between you, allowing your pipeline to widen, leading to a greater feeling of closeness and affection between you.

what you speak into

It really helps if you have plenty of positivity already in your relationship before you speak a difficult truth. Specifically, plenty of these:

1. appreciation
2. acts of caring
3. demonstrations of respect
4. thoughtfulness

If there is a good amount of this stuff going on between you, your relationship can more easily handle a difficult communication than if you lack it. In the absence of a positive condition, an honest statement can be especially upsetting and disruptive.

the master discipline

Practice speaking the strict truth. This is much harder than it seems on first glance. If you took this one principle and practiced it, really concentrated on it for a few weeks, you'd be surprised at your new level of honesty. When you are trying to say something honest to someone, it makes a difference if you are being very strict with yourself about how you're saying it. To make our case, we tend to exaggerate or skew the facts in our favor. To dramatize your point, you might feel tempted to say something that if you really thought about it, you know isn't the absolute truth. Restrain yourself. Be careful about this.

Overgeneralization is a pretty common mistake, especially when feeling hurt or angry. You never…You always… Try to be specific. Yesterday you didn't call me. Say only what you know to be strictly true. It keeps your communication more honest, and it is way more productive. For one thing, you won't get sidetracked into petty squabbles about whether you really always do this or really never say that.

This is the master discipline. If you focus on only one principle, this is it, because many of the other principles are really subcategories of this one.

Honesty is the best policy. Not because someone in authority says it is. Not because you might get found out. But because it has practical benefits in your life — benefits that outweigh the costs in the long run by a long shot.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Reliance, Translated Slotralogy, and Principles For Personal Growth. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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