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Authenticity is Overrated
On average, social convention is a better guide to happiness and well-being
Authentic people behave in line with their unique values and qualities even if those idiosyncrasies may conflict with social conventions or other external influences. For example, introverted people are being authentic when they are quiet at a dinner party even if social convention dictates that guests should generate conversation.
But a number of studies have shown that people’s feelings of authenticity are often shaped by something other than their loyalty to their unique qualities. Paradoxically, feelings of authenticity seem to be related to a kind of social conformity.
These findings suggest that people are generally happier acting in ways that are more extroverted, emotionally stable, and conscientious—regardless of how they assess their own inner nature. And apart from simply feeling better, they actually feel more authentic.
What explains this?
One possibility is that individuals internalize societal values in ways that limit their ability to find fulfillment following their own path.
In our lab and other labs that study authenticity, we tend to study people from countries where parenting practices and institutions play a role in reinforcing behaviors that are socially outgoing, even-keeled, dependable, competent and pleasant to others.
Research has shown that we view people as less than fully human when they fail to conform to societal conventions… so when it comes time to actually make a judgment about our own authenticity, we may use criteria that are closer to how we judge the authenticity of an object.
The main problem with this account is that it fails to explain why norms reinforcing sociality and emotional restraint developed in the first place. Given their pervasiveness in some of history’s most prosperous societies, is it reasonable to dismiss these cultural beliefs as purely arbitrary?
As much as we like to conceive of ourselves as self-determining individuals, at times I think we push that narrative too far. Humans are social creatures, and we thrive as a species only insofar as we find ways to harness our capacity for shared civilization.
So if we sometimes feel more authentic acting out a common pattern than marching to the beat of own drum, maybe that points to a deeper part of our nature than whatever particular quirks of personality we might have. A more fulfilling form of identity.
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