4 harsh truths that will make you a better person

Nobody recommends denial — but nobody recommends procrastination, either. And we’re all prone to both. Denial is existential procrastination. But issues aren’t scary when we know there are solutions. It’s much easier to face harsh truths when we know there’s a roadmap, and that we’ll come out the other side stronger.

Why is it that whenever someone says, “face the facts” you know you’re about to hear something you don’t want to hear? Probably because of a second cliche: “The truth hurts.”

Nobody recommends denial — but nobody recommends procrastination, either. And we’re all prone to both. Denial is existential procrastination.

But issues aren’t scary when we know there are solutions. It’s much easier to face harsh truths when we know there’s a roadmap, and that we’ll come out the other side stronger.

So let’s look at some difficult realities and learn how we can leverage research to turn what looks like a pit of despair into a trampoline that will bounce us to greater heights. Sound cool? Cool.

Let’s get to it …

Guess what? You’re going to die

Cheery, right? You’re going to die. We all know it but we sure don’t live like we know it. We act like there will always be another day, another year, and then we wonder where the time went. Because thinking about death is scary.


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But many great thinkers including the Stoics (and even the samurai) strongly believed we live better lives when we stay aware of death. And science agrees too:

Thinking about death can actually be a good thing. An awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help us re-prioritize our goals and values, according to a new analysis of recent scientific studies.

Face facts (there’s that expression again) — how much do you get done without a deadline? Well, we have one. The date’s a little fuzzy but, rest assured, there is one. If we didn’t have death we’d all be procrastinating like, “I’ll get to that next century.”

You get about 30,000 days and then you’re done. And you’ve already used up a good portion of them. Death puts life into focus.

But we ignore death, so we lose track of what’s important. Of priorities. Of the big picture. Of what’s meaningful. We even lose track of what’s fun. Friends don’t get seen and vacation days don’t get used. We don’t acknowledge that there’s an end and so we don’t prioritize and we waste time — and not even in ways that are truly enjoyable. Well, I think that’s scarier than death.

When Karl Pillemer of Cornell University studied 1200 people age 70 to 100+, what was the main lesson the older folks wanted to convey to all of us whippersnappers?

I would say lesson number one, endorsed by almost all of these 1,200 people, and one in which people tended to be rather vehement, is “Life is short.” …They want to pound this awareness into young people, not to depress them, but to encourage them to make better choices. In the field of gerontology, there is a whole theory called “socioemotional selectivity theory.” What they argue is that the one thing that makes people different at 70 and beyond, from younger people, developmentally, is a sense of limited time horizon. You become really aware that your days are numbered. Rather than that being so depressing, people start to make better choices.

When we’re aware of the quantity, we improve the quality. Now the Stoic philosopher Seneca didn’t feel life was short — but he came to a conclusion that still jibes with what Karl found:

It’s not that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is – we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.

So what should we do? Live a month like it’s your last. That’s what happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky thinks might be the solution. Don’t imagine you have terminal cancer — imagine you’re going to move far away from your job, your friends, your family, your life as you know it now. When an end is in sight, we appreciate things more:

Previous research hints that this exercise should prompt us to appreciate in a profound way what we are preparing to give up. When we believe that we are seeing (or hearing, doing, or experiencing) things for the last time, we will see (or hear, do, or experience) them as though it’s the first time.

Far from being painful, knowing there’s an end makes life richer.

(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Okay, fellow mortal, we’re doing the right things because we don’t have limitless time. But what harsh truth do we need to face about those things and that time?

Anything worthwhile will take more work than you think

We’ve all heard it a gazillion times: it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. But that’s incorrect. It’s actually worse …

It takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become an expert. You’ve spent 10,000 hours driving and you’re not ready for NASCAR. “Deliberate practice” means you need to spend 10,000 hours focusing on your weaknesses and pushing yourself to your limit to improve them. That’s hard. Really hard.

Okay, but maybe you don’t want to paint the next Guernica or start the next Google. Doesn’t matter. You’re still going to face challenges that take a lot of time and effort. What’s the thing everybody says? “Marriage takes work.” And kids? As any parent will tell you — whoa, lot of work.

When we look at the greats in most any field, turns out they faced this harsh truth head on. Most were unapologetic workaholics. Depressing, isn’t it? To really excel — in your career, as a partner, as a parent — it seems you gotta be a workaholic. So you’re gonna be stressed, miserable and die young …

Actually, no. At least not if you do it right. Not if you’re passionate and engaged. Being passionate about something makes life richer right up to the end:

Elderly individuals who were harmoniously passionate scored higher on various indicators of psychological adjustment, such as life satisfaction, meaning in life, and vitality, while they reported lower levels of negative indicators of psychological adjustment such as anxiety and depression.

And if you embrace the challenges, you won’t die young either. The Terman Study, an eight decade research project that followed nearly 1500 people from childhood to death, found that people who worked harder, lived longer. Being laid back and not accomplishing much? Oh, that’ll kill you:

Those who were the most successful were the ones least likely to die at any given age. Ambition was not a problem and taking it easy was not healthy. In fact, those men who were carefree, undependable, and unambitious in childhood and very unsuccessful in their careers had a whopping increase in their mortality risk.

Admittedly, struggle doesn’t lead to a happy life in the short term — but it leads to a meaningful life in the long term:

Considering life a struggle was negatively correlated with happiness but approached a significant positive relationship with meaningfulness… People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives. Again, we think this indicates that worrying comes from involvement and engagement with important activities …

But what if you haven’t been blessed with divine inspiration and haven’t “found your passion”? Well, professor Cal Newport says that whole perspective is bunk. For the vast majority of people, you don’t “find” or “follow” your passion — you build it:

If you study people who end up loving what they do, here’s what you find and if you study the research on it, you find the same thing: Long-term career satisfaction requires traits like a real sense of autonomy, a real sense of impact on the world, a sense of mastery that you’re good at what you do, and a sense of connection in relation to other people. Now, the key point is those traits are not matched to a specific piece of work and they have nothing to do with matching your job to some sort of ingrained, pre-existing passion.

You will spend a lot of time and effort on something in life. You can resent it and half-ass it and just get by — or you can commit to it, build it, jump in with both feet – and reap great rewards.

Don’t tolerate your struggles; embrace them. Direct them towards a goal and forge meaning from them.

(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

Makes sense, right? But some will say by emphasizing meaning I dodged that happiness issue. We all want to be happy. And right now happiness is mercurial and fleeting, showing up when it wants to. How do we get it to stick around for good? That’s what we all want, right? To reach ultimate happiness and stay there.

And that leads us to harsh truth number three …

You will never be perfectly happy

Hey, it said “harsh truths” in the headline and you read anyway. No whining. We worked our way through the others, and we’ll work our way through this one. Stick with me …

We’re always focused on that magic bullet. If I make the money, I’ll be perfectly happy forever… If I just meet my soulmate… If I just get that promotion… If I just, if I just, if I just. Sorry, nope. Wrong answer. There will always be discomfort and worries. Why?

Very simply, your brain is not wired for perpetual happiness. In fact, it’s wired against it. Here’s noted science author Robert Wright:

Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.

But just because you will never reach ultimate, perpetual bliss doesn’t mean life is awful.

The Grant Study is another one of those studies that followed people through their entire lives. The subjects who were the most successful and happy didn’t get that way because “they were happy every single day.” They were at the top of the heap because of their coping skills — their ability to deal with the inevitable problems life threw at them:

The men who exhibited “mature defenses,” Vaillant reported in 1977, were happier, more satisfied with their careers and marriages, and “were far better equipped to work and love” than their peers who possessed less mature adaptations. They earned better incomes, engaged in greater public service, had more rewarding friendships, suffered fewer problems in terms of physical and mental health, and were even much more comfortable being aggressive with others, compared to men with less mature coping skills.

Insisting life should be nonstop happiness is the surest way to stay unhappy. Work toward the good moments. Accept there will be bad moments. Then go make more good moments.

(To see the schedule that very successful people follow every day, click here.)

Okay, expecting to always feel good or that one magic event is going to solve all your problems is unrealistic. At least you can rely on other people to help you through the tough times.

Well, kinda …

People will let you down

I said they’re harsh, alright? We discuss the bad then we get to the good. You know the pattern by now. Chill. Jeez.

Where was I? “Betrayal by those you care for the most.” Yeah, that’s it. Alrighty …

Most of the secrets you told your best friend to never ever tell anyone got blabbed to someone else. (Sorry.) And if you really want to make sure they don’t keep a secret make sure to say, “Keep this between you and me.” Because that makes people more likely to spill the beans:

… in one study, 60 percent of people confessed to sharing even their best friends’ secrets with a third party. Another study found that a quarter of people shared “confidential” social information entrusted to them with at least three other people. In fact, there’s even some data to suggest that simply prefacing your secret sharing with a request for confidentiality (such as “Please keep this close to your chest” or “Just between you and me”) can actually make your confidante more likely to betray your trust, because you’re essentially flagging the coming information as being strategic and gossip-worthy, as high-value social knowledge.

So, obviously, the proper response is to trust no one and keep all humans at arm’s length, never getting close to or relying on anyone …

Bad. Wrong. Incorrect. Yes, you’re gonna get screwed occasionally. Welcome to Earth. But in the long run, we come out ahead when we trust more, not less. And we’re not talking about little secrets here. We’re actually talking about big stuff, like money:

Income peaks among those who trust people more, not less. In a study titled “The Right Amount of Trust,” people were asked how much they trusted others on a scale of one to ten. Income was highest among those who responded with the number eight… Who suffered the most? Those with the lowest levels of trust had an income 14.5 percent lower than eights. That loss is the equivalent of not attending college.

So trusting gets you more money. What should you do with the extra loot? Again, the answer is people. Research by Michael Norton at Harvard shows we’re happier when we spend money on others instead of on ourselves.

People will disappoint us. That’s life. That’s real. But, despite that, we still do better in the long run when we trust and forgive others. Relationships are the number one predictor of a happy life. Without trust you cannot be happy. The Grant Study concluded that “the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.”

So how do we manage? We can’t avoid the occasional disappointment. That’s impossible. Leading relationship researcher John Gottman says it all comes down to ratios. For instance, five positive interactions for every negative one is what leads to a happy marriage.

Do you expect people to be perfect? Are you perfect? No. And if anyone does seem perfect we get suspicious. Gottman found that too: 13 positives to every negative makes people lose credibility. When anyone is that positive, we think something’s fishy.

“Perfection”, it turns out, isn’t perfect and “pretty good” is good enough.

(To learn the secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)

Let’s round it all up — and learn the biggest good that can come from the biggest pain …

Sum up

These are four harsh truths that will make you a better person:

  • You’re going to die: You have a deadline. Literally. So focus on what matters. And make sure to celebrate the good times. I’d rather have a shorter awesome life than a long, lousy one.
  • Anything worthwhile takes more work than you think: Ever futz around an entire Sunday, not truly having fun and not truly accomplishing anything? And then you say, “What the heck did I do all day?” Well, you don’t want to be saying that about your life. Embrace the challenges and find meaning.
  • You will never be perfectly happy: And you don’t need to be. Insisting on complete happiness is the surest way to stay unhappy. Be grateful for what you have and gently reach for a little more.
  • People will let you down: You’re allowed to insist others be perfect the day you become perfect. Which is never. People will cause you problems — but they’re also the biggest source of happiness. Five-to-one is plenty good.

Life is challenging. Living in denial just means you’re going to be blindsided more often. You don’t have to kid yourself that the world is perfect in order to be pretty happy.

We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder. What we don’t hear about as often is “post-traumatic growth.” Yes, some people (very few people, actually) experience pain that follows them for a very long time. But more often, Nietzsche was right. As University of Pennsylvania happiness expert Martin Seligman found, what does not kill you does make you stronger:

A substantial number of people also show intense depression and anxiety after extreme adversity, often to the level of PTSD, but then they grow. In the long run, they arrive at a higher level of psychological functioning than before … In a month, 1,700 people reported at least one of these awful events, and they took our well-being tests as well. To our surprise, individuals who’d experienced one awful event had more intense strengths (and therefore higher well-being) than individuals who had none. Individuals who’d been through two awful events were stronger than individuals who had one, and individuals who had three — raped, tortured, and held captive for example — were stronger than those who had two.

Avoidance perpetuates pain. We cannot fix the harshness we do not face. But when we address issues, we grow and live better lives.

Maya Angelou put it best: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

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This article first appeared on Barking up the Wrong Tree.

Eric Barker|is the author of "Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong." He is also the author of the website by the same name.