The Sanity of Illusions
Do we need to delude ourselves to stay mentally healthy?
I once met an old lady from Florida whose name now eludes me, whose face I can’t remember at all, but whose capacity for delusion I’ll not forget, for never in my life have I envied anyone quite so much.
She was inching towards her 60s, maybe a little past, once a wife and a mother, now alone. Her husband had left for another, her children had grown up and gone.
She’d decamped to Florida and got herself a dog.
I felt sorry for her, and a little sad, and my own, rather nebulous troubles seemed suddenly puny. But the old lady wasn’t seeking my sympathy; instead, I had the odd feeling that rather than pity herself, she was trying to console me. As it transpired, she believed herself quite happy: her dog loved her unconditionally, and so did Jesus, whom she had now devoted her life to (indeed she fancied him her new husband), and unlike everyone else in her life, those two would never abandon her.
I remember thinking that she was lying to herself for the truth would be too hard for her to bear. But now I don’t know. The more time passes, the more convinced I become that she was lucky and that it didn’t ultimately matter that it was all an illusion if she never found out.
In the final analysis, she’d be the happy one, the truth be damned. Because even if I were right and her happiness wasn’t really real, she still had it while my rightness made hardly a dent in my bitterness.
We think that sanity is seeing things objectively and accurately, as they are. We are told that mental illness comes from errors of cognition and irrational beliefs about ourselves and others. But this, it turns out, is not true. None of us perceives reality in an unbiased way. If anything, the depressed may see things more objectively than the rest, as studies of “depressive realism” have suggested. And as to good mental health, it’s not the absence of illusions but may, in fact, depend on them.
In the late 1980s, Shelley Taylor, a research psychologist at UCLA, published an influential survey of the ways in which normal people consistently distort reality. For example, we tend to think of ourselves as better and more capable than the average person — something that’s, of course, statistically impossible.
And yet these inflated views often lead to positive outcomes: people who overestimate their abilities achieve more ambitious goals, partners who hold idealized images of each other enjoy happier marriages.
There are other positive illusions that help us cope with life: we believe we have more control over external circumstances than we actually do and we see the future in a more positive light than objective data would justify. It seems that these illusions are necessary: we need to constantly and convincingly delude ourselves in order to stay sane, find the motivation to pursue our goals, attain contentment, and even, I suspect, simply get through the day.
In his celebrated book “Sapiens”, Yuval Noah Harari talks about illusions as a kind of “mysterious glue” that has enabled humans to work together on a massive scale and led to our domination over the earth and all other species. “This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes,” Harari says.
We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another.
Civilization, then, seems to be the product of our collective imagination, our uncanny ability to delude ourselves in sufficiently large numbers at the same time over days and years and millennia of human history until the illusion we’ve imposed on the world begins to look like reality — and in a way, becomes reality while still residing solely in our heads.
The self, too, appears to be an illusion. According to experimental psychologist Bruce Hood, neuroscience has begun to realize that the thing we think of as “me” and the thing doing the thinking — the conscious “I” — may actually be nothing but self-inventions. He cites split brain studies revealing that we are not “integrated entities” but rather “the output of a multitude of unconscious processes”.
On top of that, each of us employs an intricate internal machinery to pick, edit, filter out, distort and delete what we perceive and remember. “The very thing psychology keeps telling us, that we have all these unconscious mechanisms that reframe information to fit with a coherent story, [is that] both the “I” and the “me”, to all intents and purposes, are generated narratives.”
All of this is to say that the stories we tell ourselves matter. “Some people become frozen in a bad story,” one psychotherapist told me when I asked him about the clients he couldn’t help. I think this applies to many of us today and it isn’t hard to see why: the bad story feels a lot like reality. When we take an honest look at ourselves, at the world and the future, there’s plenty to despair about. The more objective story may indeed be the bad story and to hope can seem pedestrian, naïve, backward.
But I’m beginning to think that maybe hope radical. I look at that old lady from Florida, who is out there spinning her good stories and there’s something truly revolutionary (if a little desperate, too) about her defiance of reason, about her refusal to let it dictate her inner life, about her stubborn insistence to choose her own illusion. Some days I even imagine her pitying me.