May 2017

Authenticity: The Key to Happiness

Author: Kent Thune

Just be yourself. It’s easy advice to give, but it’s not easy advice to follow. Why not? How difficult can it be to just be you?

Apparently, the task of being comfortable in our skin is nearly impossible. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so much superficiality, materiality, tension and unhappiness in the world. Or perhaps this statement should be rephrased to say that our capacity to be anything or anyone but ourselves has become easier and thus more commonplace in the world today.

But being fake, as it were, is not exactly a new trend. Francois de la Rochefoucauld, the noted seventeenth century French author of maxims and memoirs, put it best when he said, “We get so much in the habit of wearing disguises before others that we finally appear disguised before ourselves.”

Although a slight departure from reality from time to time may seem perfectly harmless, we do harm when we aren’t ourselves; there is a direct correlation between authenticity and happiness. Which is to say that, unfortunately, the inability to be ourselves is a fundamental cause of unhappiness and failure in our lives.
In fact, the further away we drift from our authentic selves, the unhappier we become and the greater the frequency and intensity of our failures, or lack of successes, in every aspect of our lives, from emotional well-being, to physical health, to relationships, to career.

To recall evidence of this truth in your own life, reflect on this Chinese proverb: “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” Think of occasions when you’re in the presence of a certain person or group of people that, for some reason, make you feel that acting like someone else is necessary to be with them. You put on a show just to give them what you think they expect.

Or what about the job where you act so differently from your true self that you deserve an Oscar for your performance? It’s exhausting to act like someone else! Eventually you become stressed, or even depressed, from existing so far away from your true nature that you forget who you are.

Now think of a long-term relationship, where you spent so much energy trying to please the other person, trying to enable them to be themselves, that you ironically drifted away from your own true self.

If any of those scenarios sound like you, don’t worry. You’re normal! And fortunately, there is a cure to this malady we call the human condition. In the case of temporarily losing oneself to the falseness of the so-called real world, there is a remedy. The first step in finding your authentic self is to recognize how you became lost in the first place. The recognition of illusion is the beginning of its ending.

If you look back on the life you have lived thus far, you may be able to notice various outside influences, such as social conventions, that convinced you that being something other than yourself can be a good idea. For example, as a child, your perspective of life was clear and undistorted: When you were young, you were pure and uncovered, you lived firmly in the present moment; you saw the possibilities rather than the limitations; your imagination was big and you believed in it; and there was no difference between work and play. However, the gradual and consistent exposure to the outer world began to erode this natural pureness as you grew older. You began to form an outer identity that aligned more with the expectations of the outer world than with the needs of your inner, authentic self.

This part of life is what is commonly referred to as the preparation for entering “the real world.” But this reference is ironic because it is actually a preparation, or rather a conditioning, to be an unreal person in an unreal world. Although this integration into society and into the world is very much a part of our adaptive human nature, we tend to go too far with the adaptation; we are often too much human, not enough being.

If you have already experienced your middle-age years, you know that this time in life can be the most stressful. This is the time of life when you can lose your authentic self. It is when social conventions teach you that money and material objects are required for happiness. And if you achieve the happiness, you must add more things to your life to sustain it; you think you have goals, but instead you are chasing intermittent rewards; your work and play are completely separate activities. Who you are and what you do drift further and further apart. You’re “suddenly” a candidate for psychotherapy.

So now that we are near the point of depression in our reflective activity here, let’s work on getting back to the real you. Most important, don’t spend time around people that don’t make you feel completely alive. If you find yourself putting on an act to be around them, find other friends or spend more time by yourself. Equally as important, although it’s easier said than done, if you’re career doesn’t enable your true self to emerge and flourish, find another career, even if it means taking a pay cut.

If bold moves like this seem difficult for you now, try taking advice from the dying. A palliative nurse recorded the most common regrets of the dying and put her findings into a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. The number one most common regret of the dying is “to have had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Sound familiar? We become so conditioned to being someone else that we grow uncomfortable being authentic. It’s easier to be fake than real.

You do not need to be on your death bed to realize this truth. Those who are closest to death are often the closest to life. People who know they are dying often give away their worldly possessions and realize how nearly all their material things, as well as their anxieties, fears, and challenges in life, were nothing more than illusion.

But why not recognize this illusion now, when you can put the wisdom to use for the remainder of your life rather than in its final moments? Why continue to cover yourself with materiality and hide behind masks, only to realize later in life that this behavior was completely unnecessary and even damaging to you and the people around you?

The only thing that keeps this illusion alive is the failure to recognize it. Now go and be your authentic self. You’ll be happier and probably more successful in everything that you do. 

Kent Thune is an authentic human being when spending time with his wife, Angie, and his two sons, and when he’s playing guitar, writing, and advising clients how to manage their money at his firm, Atlantic Capital Investments, LLC. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com or on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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