The You You Never Knew: 7 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Yourself
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
But when was the last time you actually surprised yourself? After all, it’s easy to get caught up in comforting confirmation biases and pleasant patterns that support what you already know. For this reason, reading self-help books that interest you might not help you learn anything new at all. Alternatively, you could go around and quiz the people in your life about what they’ve observed about you. Unfortunately, this might be less enjoyable for them than it is for you.
To save you from mining your friends and family for nuggets of insight, I’ve recorded a few astonishing aspects of human nature that I brush up against in my psychology practice all the time. Here are 7 probably new-to-you truths about your mind, your body, and your habits that might be a total surprise.
1. Whether stress is good or bad depends on how you look at it
You’ve heard it before: stress is terrible for you, wears down your body and mind, and causes sickness. So why in the world would you embrace it?
In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal explains that having a good relationship to stress can actually increase longevity! McGonigal nuances the definition of stress by explaining it as a reaction that occurs when something you care about is at stake. It could be your frustration over a traffic jam that will make you late, or your anxiety about an upcoming presentation.
And in fact, in a 2006 US study, researchers did discover that high levels of stress increased the risk of death by as much as 43 percent. But here’s the thing: this was only in people who believed stress was harmful. Those who reported high stress levels but didn’t believe it was harmful had the lowest risk of death of all participants, leading to the conclusion that stress is harmful—when you believe it is.
Your attitude toward stress influences the choices you make in everyday life, so if you view stress as harmful, you tend to try and avoid it at all costs. People who view stress as helpful, on the other hand, are more likely to come up with strategies to cope with the source of stress, seek help, and make the best of the situation.
2. Evil: like it or not, it’s in you
Do you know the story of Lucifer? Lucifer, once the favorite angel, challenged God’s authority. His punishment was being sent to hell with a cadre of other fallen angels. There, he turned into Satan, the personification of all things evil. His transformation is known as the Lucifer Effect; even angels can turn bad under the right—or wrong—circumstances.
But it’s not only the Bible that tells stories of good gone bad. Almost every day, in war zones as well as tight-knit communities, we read about normal people doing evil things. In his book The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo explores the mechanisms, situations, and conditions that could cause anyone to go bad.
Take, for instance, the Stanford prison experiment, which the author conducted in 1971. Here, he put young male students—all with a history of completely unremarkable behavior—in a mock prison at Stanford University and randomly assigned them to play the roles of guards and prisoners.
Surprisingly, the play-acting guards actually became abusive and violent almost immediately. They invented ways of degrading and punishing the prisoners, such as stripping them of their clothes and mattresses and forcing them to urinate and defecate in a bucket that they then refused to empty. In fact, the experiment got so out of hand that Zimbardo had to stop the experiment after just six days, even though it was planned to run for two weeks.
This experiment shows how certain conditions can make seemingly anyone do monstrous things. In this case, it is believed that role-playing guards made the students adopt aggressive “guard characteristics.” The fact that the “guards” were provided with uniforms and mirrored sunglasses that would prevent eye contact seems to also have played a part as this decreased their sense of personal accountability.
3. You might be setting yourself up for dishonesty
We’re all a little awful, as Dan Ariely shows us in his book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. In our schools, at the office, in the home, and even in our own minds, we deceive and cheat in one way or another.
For instance, did you ever think that the simple act of wearing fake designer clothes could make you cheat more often?
In fact, in an experiment, three groups of participants were given designer sunglasses, and the first was told that they were
authentic, the second that they were fake, and the third was given no information. Then participants had to take a math test where they were given an opportunity to cheat.
The result? According to the amount of cheating evident in the third group (who were given no information about the glasses), the average level of cheating was 42 percent.
However, in the other groups the results were quite different: In the first group, the positive self-image engendered by the participants’ belief in the glasses’ authenticity meant that just 30 percent cheated on the test. But in the second group, the negative effect of wearing fakes was so significant that an incredible 74 percent of the participants cheated.
As this shows, committing one dishonest act (in this case, wearing fake designer sunglasses) increases the chances of committing another.
4. Buying things—even things that make your life convenient—only makes you feel worse
A Kindle to make your books take up less space will make your daily life easier. And a beautiful cashmere sweater will make you feel cozier and more attractive, thus happier. Right? Not according to the authors of Affluenza: How Overconsumption is Killing Us – and How to Fight Back. In their book, John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor make the point that society as a whole has become addicted to consumption and that this leaves us in a worrisome cycle of self-deception.
Our sheer desire for more stuff is reducing the quality of our lives, they say, and it makes us work so much that we don’t have time for the things in life that really matter, like human connections and time out in nature. Oh, and did I mention that we’re destroying our planet in the process?
The book tells the tale of the vicious cycle that is caused by our addiction to work and shopping. We buy more stuff to fix the problems caused by our desires to buy stuff in the first place. This cycle prevents us from seeking out things we truly need, like our friends, family, and community.
So how can you cure yourself of affluenza or inoculate against it? According to the authors, the first step is recognizing that consumption can’t buy satisfaction, while reducing your consumption can lead to greater happiness.
For instance, in 1995, a survey conducted by the Center for a New American Dream concluded that 86 percent of Americans who voluntarily decreased their level of consumption were happier afterward. So, to increase your quality of life, try to get more out of what you already have rather than trying to have more.
5. The desire to be happier might be making you unhappy
Happiness feels so good that it’s only natural to do whatever you can to increase it. Unfortunately, as Oliver Burkeman reveals in The Antidote, the more artificially optimistic you try to make yourself, the worse you’ll feel.
For instance, affirmations, those peppy, self-congratulatory phrases designed to make people feel happier through repetition, can ultimately reaffirm negativity. In fact, several experiments have found that people who were asked to write down “I’m a lovable person” repeatedly became less happy in the process. They didn’t feel particularly lovable to begin with, and trying to convince themselves otherwise merely made them feel worse.
Perhaps the counterproductive aspect of our pursuit for happiness is best summed up by a character in an Edith Wharton story: “There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there’s only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running around after happiness.”
Indeed, the pursuit of happiness can prevent you from feeling happy in the short term, as people who focus on achieving happiness get less joy out of the pleasurable experiences that are supposed to create it. What’s more, striving to be happy can also make you unhappy in the mid-term. The pursuit of happiness over all else is inherently self-centered, which can distract you from others’ needs, mucking up your relationships.
So rather than focusing doggedly on feeling happy, Burkeman suggests embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty—just what we usually spend our lives trying to avoid.
6. A bit of pessimism makes you sharper
Is it possible to be a pessimistic person and still live a good life? Yes, and in Psychobabble Stephen Briers makes the case that pessimists are actually better off than all the positive Pollyannas out there. While pop psychology and self-help books claim that positive thinking has the answers to all of your problems, studies show that people in bad moods are actually less prone to mental errors.
This was evidenced by one study in which subjects watched movies aimed at lifting or dampening their moods, and were then asked to complete several mental tasks, such as judging the truth of rumors. Compared to their happy counterparts, those with dampened spirits were better focused, less gullible, and made fewer mistakes.
Positive thinking itself can even be dangerous, if overdone. Then it becomes denial, and denial can breed problems. This is because sometimes the most realistic take on a situation is a negative one. Just think of the sinking Titanic: until the bitter end, many passengers held on to the belief that the ship was unsinkable. While this denial might have helped the doomed passengers cope, denial in other situations can prevent you from dealing with a problem that requires action. For example, if you experience the early symptoms of diabetes, you really ought to see your doctor rather than pretend that nothing is wrong.
So positive thinking, while not inherently bad, isn’t always healthy, helpful, or rational.
7. Your dark side can benefit you
We now know that it can be counterproductive to get all caught up in pursuing happiness. But what about embracing your dark side? Isn’t that taking it one step too far?
Not if you’re to ask Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener who in The Upside of Your Dark Side explore how many of our most painful emotions are sometimes the key to our success.
Take the often frowned-upon emotion of anger. Studies show that anger actually can enhance your authority, as angry people are often viewed as being more powerful than their happier counterparts. Consequently, demonstrating anger can give you leverage during negotiations.
For instance, in one experiment participants were supposed to sell mobile phones for the highest price they could manage. Interestingly, the results varied dramatically depending on whether their negotiating partner—the buyer—appeared angry or neutral.It turns out that participants were willing to sell their phones at a much lower price to buyers who appeared angry.
Moreover, occasional outbursts of anger can be an effective means of strengthening your authority. For example, in a study of construction managers, many interviewees reported that selective angry outbursts had proven effective at motivating an ineffective team to cooperate again.
Your Surprise Yourself reading list:
- More on the positive sides to stress in The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal
- Learn other conditions that can turn you into a monster in The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo
- Get in touch with dishonesty in The Honest Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely
- See more myths about happiness debunked in The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman
- Learn more about the downside of consumption in Affluenza by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor
- Bust those misguiding self-help theories in Psychobabble by Stephen Briers
- Discover what other classically negative traits hold benefits in The Upside of Your Dark Side by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener.