tufts universitytufts magazine issue homepage
contact us back issues related links
featuresthink tankplanet tufts newswire the big day Departments The Editorial We Letters Creations Doers’ Profiles Afterimage Take It From Me
Photo: Alonso Nichols


Spare Me My Illusions

If your goal is to be happy, be prepared to believe some things that aren’t true. The truth—whether about oneself, the world, or the future—was never meant to be consumed without a counteracting dose of balderdash. It is simply too big a downer otherwise. For years, psychologists have been telling us that depressed people are in closer touch with reality than happy people are. The explanation is obvious, isn’t it? Realistic people see more to be depressed about than people who buoy themselves up with fantasies about their sterling qualities and their rosy prospects, or with a Pangloss-like belief that everything, no matter how horrifying, is for the best. And I say, long live the fantasists.

I once attended a concert by a Motown singer who was popular in the sixties. There she was, forty years later, busting out of a tiny sequined mini-dress, oblivious to the effects of time on her once delicate figure. But you could tell from the way she moved that the dress made her feel marvelous, as hot as ever. The self-deception did no harm, and probably helped her turn in a star performance.

I suppose most of us have a dress like that—if not an actual garment, then a patch of wool we pull over our eyes to shield us from reality. The human condition, a state of relentless striving consummated by death, is hard to take straight. So we prettify it. We exaggerate our control over our destinies, just as our forebears sought to mollify volcano gods or make it rain. We inflate our significance in the vast order of things. And we readily believe anything that takes the sting out of mortality, even if it means shaking our booties in clothes that are decades too young for us.

Frankly, whatever makes people happy is OK with me. If you told me you believed in an afterlife where flying hippopotamuses serve butterscotch pudding in the shoes of your great-aunts, there was a time when I would have felt duty-bound to reason with you. But not any more. The older I get, the more vexatious those questions about the meaning of life, death, and one’s place in the universe become. And the more I sympathize with people who have found comforting answers, however improbable to me.

Those who quest after a semblance of objective truth have their place, of course. Somebody has to understand the properties of matter, energy, and organisms well enough to ensure human survival (a theme that reverberates in “Science Denied”). But human nature favors the quasi-true, the semi-true, the would-be true. A comforting delusion beats an unpleasant truth hands down—the pursuit of happiness demands it.


  © 2012 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155