Jul 6, 2022 - Health

Axios Finish Line: Truth is good for health

Illustration of a lightbulb with a brain-shaped filament

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This appeared first in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter about health, life and leadership. Sign up here.

The average American tells 11 lies a week.

  • Why it matters: Lying less actually improves our mental and physical health.

That's according to a recent study by researchers at Notre Dame.

  • They asked a group of people to stop telling lies for 10 weeks and told a control group to continue as normal.
  • The group of truth-tellers reported fewer instances of poor mental health, such as feeling tense or melancholy, as well as fewer physical symptoms, like sore throats or headaches.
  • The truth-tellers also reported improvements in their relationships with friends and family. And they said they felt generally more honest by the fifth week of avoiding lies.

The big picture: The lies we tell range from relatively harmless — like telling someone you liked a gift when you didn't — to big and bad — like taking credit for someone else's work.

  • 89% of lies fall into the "little white lies" category, and 11% are "big lies," per a University of Wisconsin–La Crosse study.
  • And we lie most to those closest to us. The same study found that 51% of fibs are told to friends, 21% to family members, and 11% to school or work colleagues. Just 9% of our lies are told to strangers.

What's happening: When we tell lies — regardless of whether they're big or small — our bodies respond. Lying can trigger an increased heart rate, high blood pressure and elevated levels of stress hormones in the blood, psychologists have found. Over time, that can take a significant toll on mental and physical health.

Even just witnessing dishonesty can be bad for someone's health, per a paper from Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

  • Those who observe someone lie, cheat or steal can experience the same physiological effects as the liar themselves.

It's hard to quit lying cold turkey. But there are changes we can all make to be more honest.

These are three of the big ways those in the truth-tellers group in the Notre Dame study cut back on their lying, per researcher and psychologist Anita Kelly.

  1. Don't exaggerate. When you're telling someone good news, keep it simple and keep it real. Don't dress it up.
  2. Don't make up excuses. If you're late or if you forgot to return someone's call, just be honest about what happened. Chances are your friends and family will understand.
  3. If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. We've all heard this one. If you're at dinner, and you hate the string beans but love the mashed potatoes, just compliment the chef on what you enjoyed.
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