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Honesty, Integrity

optimal LIVING • Aristotle group


“Honesty is the best policy. If I lose my honor, I lose myself”

~William Shakespeare


Why do we teach our children the maxim “Honesty is the best policy?” Why is honesty the best policy? Numerous answers exist. One easy answer is that is simplifies our lives. In an environment that is growing in complexity, honesty simplifies our lives and expands our resources. Honesty relieves us of the need to pretend or keep track of what we have said, preserving energy and resources that can be utilized in other areas of life. At a deeper level, honesty allows us to operate in an authentic and integrated way. When we are authentic we are integrated.

Dishonesty stresses the body and this stress is measurable. Physical symptoms include increases in heart rate, muscle tension and increased blood pressure. Even when the symptoms are not readily apparent they can be measured. Brain scans reveal that when we are dishonest, our brain must carry our complex operations that are not required when we are honest. It appears that we are hard wired for honesty. Our mind and body signal the physical impact when we depart from honesty.

In “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” Christopher Peterson defines integrity, authenticity and honesty as the character strength “in which people are true to themselves, accurately representing–privately and publicly–their internal states, intentions and commitments. It is classified as a virtue of courage, indicating that it often takes courage to do the right thing. The word integrity comes from the Latin word integritas which means whole, complete and entire. Disintegration is a powerful opposite defined as destroying unity or breaking into parts.

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world
is to be what we pretend to be.”

- Socrates

Early philosophers including Socrates and Aristotle wrestled with the topic of integrity and authenticity. Socrates is often cited as asserting that the unexamined life is not worth living. Aristotle focused self-reflection on authentic behavior, acting in alignment with purpose.

Authenticity facilitates our ability to grow and develop in a way that is congruent with who we are. Psychologist Carl Rogers (1961) argued that “a person, who sacrifices authenticity to preserve a partial or rigid self-image, or to deceive or manipulate others, likely sacrifices much potential for personal growth and positive change.”

Authenticity has been correlated with a number of positive outcomes including: higher reported levels of life satisfaction, well-being, self-esteem, resilience, and goal attainment. Social Psychologist Ken Sheldon has found that authentic, or self-concordant, goals lead to higher levels of goal attainment. Authentic goals fuel “an upward spiral of growth and positive change.”

We admire honesty, integrity, and authenticity in others. In fact, our perception of others is positively impacted when we view them as authentic. Leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner have surveyed people around the world over the past two decades regarding the qualities most admired in a leader. Over time and across cultures, the number one quality cited as most important in the decision to follow a leader is honesty. Honesty is viewed as more important than qualities such as vision, inspiration, and competence.

We can leverage authenticity through four components (Goldman and Kernis, 2002). Understanding our unique strengths, weaknesses, values, and preferred ways of behaving is a starting point. A second component is unbiased feedback. Abraham Lincoln, often referred to as “honest Abe”, invested in unbiased feedback. He made a commitment to learning from people who opposed him by including critics and even those who mocked him during his campaign in his cabinet. A third component involves behavior or action. Taking action and behaving in a way consistent with our values, preferences, and needs rather than behavior that is controlled by others builds authenticity. A fourth component is open and truthful relationships.

A simple approach to leveraging authenticity is:

  • Understand our unique strengths, values, and potential weaknesses.
  • Regularly seek unbiased feedback and integrate that feedback.
  • Take action that is consistent with your values and motivations.
  • Connect with others, building supportive and truthful relationships.

The woman that we know as Sojourner Truth was born into slavery with the given name of Isabella Baumfree in 1797 and was sold five times prior to being freed by state law in 1827. She serves as a paragon of integrity and authenticity. In 1843, as a result of religious vision, she became a traveling preacher true to her new name Sojourner Truth. She spoke openly expressing her convictions about abolition and women’s rights. She met with Abraham Lincoln in the White House and while in Washington challenged discrimination of segregated street cars. Her actions provide a clear inspirational view of the courage frequently required to act with integrity, authenticity, and honesty. When asked about her courage, Sojourner Truth answered “I feel safe even in the midst of my enemies; for the truth is powerful and will prevail.”

Truth is powerful. Integrity, authenticity, and honesty are all powerful components of optimal living.

The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) is a self-report questionnaire that measures 24 strengths of character organized under six core virtues. The questionnaire takes approximately 30 minutes to complete and results in a printable report providing a rank order of strengths. The VIA-IS can be accessed free of charge at www.authentichappiness.org.


Gordon Parry is the President of Aristotle Group, a firm dedicated to helping individuals, teams, and organizations achieve their full potential. In 2005, Gordon was one of 35 students selected globally to complete the first graduate program in the new field of applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.


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