We are all self-deluded in various ways. Most self-delusions can be harmful, but some are positively beneficial. They can boost happiness, health, and even wealth. How is that possible? How can being wrong about reality and being utterly self-deluded be so helpful? Would you like to know the three wonderfully beneficial self-delusions of healthy, happy people?
Before we share these three helpful delusions, let’s explore the nature of delusions. A delusion is a “false belief or judgement about objective reality, held despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary”. Since beliefs and judgements about how much control we have are usually not binary, they fall somewhere on a continuum.
If we believe that we have no control over our health and wellbeing, we will take no action to stay healthy. Conversely, if we believe we have total control over our health and wellbeing, we will take actions that have no effect. At both of these delusional extremes, we can harm ourselves. Somewhere between these harmful ends of the continuum is a sweet zone—an optimal level of self-control over our physical and mental health.
Which is more harmful? The delusion of no control or the delusion of total control? In theory, both extremes can be equally harmful. However, in practice, taking too little control tends to be more damaging.
Here’s a practical example: consider my “use it or lose it” hypothesis of brain deterioration leading to many types of dementia. If a person believes there is nothing they can do to avoid or minimise the chances of dementia, they will take no protective action. On the other hand, if a person believes that the brain is a learning organ and operates on the principle of “use it or lose it”, they will engage in regular or continual learning.
If the person who believes “there’s no point because I have no control” is wrong, their inaction increases their chances of developing dementia. If the “total control” person is wrong, they will have learned new skills and knowledge. In other words, in this case, it is wiser to be deluded at one extreme than at the other. How much wiser? About 2.7 times wiser. Why? Because brain-inactive adults are 2.7 times more likely to develop dementia,
Looking more broadly, the same principle seems to apply: being deluded when the delusion could potentially be beneficial is the wisest course of mental action.
That takes us to the “three wise delusions” as I call them. What are they? Having unrealistically high self-esteem, an exaggerated sense of personal control, and unrealistic optimism about the future. How can such delusions be good for us?
Having optimism for the future can be beneficial for health in several ways, as supported by the following research results: Optimistic people have been found to be less stressed, achieve more, and experience less anxiety. How is that possible? If people are optimistic, they will make an effort to achieve. If they are pessimistic, they won’t. In other words, optimism helps people achieve more because it creates higher levels of motivation. More effort equals a greater chance of achievement.
Optimism is also associated with better physical and mental health. Optimists tend to sleep better, experience less stress, have stronger immune systems, enjoy better relationships, and have a lower risk of chronic diseases. Why? It appears that optimists act on the belief that taking health-enhancing actions will improve both the quantity and quality of their lives. They are right; it does. Almost all research shows that optimists live longer, have fewer health problems, achieve more, and maintain better mental health throughout their lives.
Even when faced with massive challenges and traumas that would destroy most people, optimists cope better, report less pain, recover faster, and even turn their adversity into an advantage. Why? How? Being optimists, they have developed better coping skills. Better coping skills mean better adaptation to adversity.
Even though optimism may be delusional in some contexts, overall, it is massively beneficial for health.
Since it is so beneficial to be optimistic, you might appreciate a few tips on how to increase your levels of optimism:
- Focus on the positive. Pay attention to the good things in your life and focus on what you are grateful for.
- Think about the future. Plan to make the things that you want to achieve happen.
- Set goals that you are confident you can achieve. When you achieve them, you will be encouraged. Then set more goals. Over time, the goal-setting and achievement processes create a virtuous cycle – a self-fulfilling achievement loop.
- Take care of yourself. Eat healthily, exercise, and get enough sleep. A healthy body creates a better environment for an optimistic mind. Spend time with positive people. Surround yourself with people who are optimistic and mutually supportive. This will help you (and them) stay positive and motivated. Remove as many negative and pessimistic people from your life as you can.
- Engage in self-reflection. Regularly look at yourself through the lens of optimism; ask yourself, “How optimistic am I? What will enhance my optimism?”
Having a slightly delusional sense of control over our lives can be beneficial for our health in many ways. Feeling that we have control (even when we don’t) reduces the level of stress or anxiety experienced in response to external events. Some people who have an exaggerated sense of control take this view of most events in life: “Control it, or it will control me”. Others with elevated perceptions of control believe, “I can’t control everything that happens, but I can control all my responses to what happens”. Even when faced with failure, those with a delusionally high sense of control think, “If I succeed, I achieve my goal. If I fail this time or with this method, I learn something about how to achieve my goal. Either way, I win”.
Greater levels of personal control also enhance levels of motivation. People who feel they can control outcomes to achieve something they wish are more motivated to achieve it. That, in turn, means that those with optimally exaggerated perceptions of personal control are typically higher achievers and more financially secure.
The same health benefits that apply to optimists also accrue from having an exaggerated sense of personal control. Some of those benefits are acquired in different ways. When we feel that we have control over our lives, we are less likely to feel stressed, even if that feeling is delusional. The same applies to sleep; we sleep better when we feel in control. Lower stress and better sleep boost our immune systems.
Mental health is also assisted by delusional levels of control. One of the key factors in depression is the perception of being unable to control negative or adverse circumstances. People who have exaggerated levels of personal control are less likely to experience depression, and if they do, they recover faster and more fully.
Here are some tips on how to increase your sense of personal control. Take action towards your goals. People who take action towards their goals either achieve or learn how to achieve them. Whichever of those prizes they win, another prize awaits: the confidence to take action. The more confident someone is that they will take action to improve their lives, the more likely they are to act. That, in turn, makes it more likely that they will achieve better outcomes than inactive others. Learn. People who acquire new knowledge and/or learn new skills have their confidence and competence boosted. If you do that regularly, it will just be a matter of time before that generalises to an enhanced sense of control.
When a person has an exaggerated sense of their personal control and is optimistic, it is reasonable to expect that their self-esteem will be higher than the norm. That is indeed the case. In fact, the three empowering delusions seem to support each other.
People with higher-than-normal self-esteem are more willing to learn because they have a higher expectation of successful learning outcomes. Because they take on more challenges, they have, through experience, become better at problem-solving; they have more advanced coping skills. That, in turn, enables them to achieve more and at a higher level. Even when they fail, people with high self-esteem tend to “fail forward”. In other words, they see what others regard as failures as both resilience developers and valuable lessons.
It will come as no surprise that people with unduly high levels of self-esteem live longer, healthier lives, have better relationships, and are better off financially.
Each of the three delusions seems to set in motion a virtuous cycle. It seems not to matter which one comes first; the other two will follow. Delusional levels of optimism mean that the person will try more, which makes them learn more, which gives them an enhanced sense of personal control, which makes achievement more likely, which in turn boosts self-esteem, which in turn creates optimism, and so on.
The three empowering delusions can lead to a life that most people would love to live. Three forms of self-delusion are extremely beneficial, so much so that deliberately adopting them could be wise. They have worked for countless healthy, happy, and successful people.
What action will you take today to start yourself on the journey to a lifetime enhanced by self-delusion?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.