The best prescription for happiness: To thine own self be true.
David Servan-Schreiber | December 2008 issue
Sophie is unhappy with her husband, but won’t risk talking to him about it. It’s easier to behave as though everything’s fine. Jack knows the factory waste he disposes of is toxic, but he’ll do anything to stop others from finding out. For 15 years, Michelle has been hiding the fact that her father is in prison; she’s worried it won’t go down well with her circle of friends. Denise is a doctor and a media commentator; she’s had cancer for the last two years but doesn’t want anyone to know, so she goes for treatment in secret.
One of the most stressful things for an animal in captivity is to find itself in a new cage with a new group, where it must establish a new social position. Humans aren’t so different. We too struggle to establish our positions in the hierarchy, and, once there, don’t want to risk losing them. Even if we find our place in the pecking order no longer fits with our values and aspirations, and suffer as a result, it can be incredibly difficult to free ourselves, to stop conforming to what we believe others expect of us.
Centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle talked about self-determination. For him, each human being was like a seed that had to grow into a unique plant. Each human therefore needed to strive to achieve all that his or her potential would permit. Some 2,500 years later, Abraham Maslow, humanistic psychologist and founder of the personal development movement in the 1960s, studied happy people. He concluded, like Aristotle, that they were more in touch with their inner selves, and had greater “self knowledge” than others. By accepting themselves, they were able to accept others.
Recently, Professor Steve Cole of the University of California in Los Angeles proved our bodies benefit when we accept ourselves. He studied 200 homosexual men over five years. He found the incidence of cancer and other diseases was three times higher among those who hid their sexuality. Other studies have found that to function at our best, with healthy immune systems, we need to feel authentic, true to ourselves, even if we risk the disapproval of our peers.
We all live our lives behind masks, some more carefully constructed than others. But developing the courage to be ourselves is one of life’s most important processes, and, we now know, crucial to health. It’s up to each of us to live up to the challenge our bodies have set for us.