The Study of Authenticity (Positive Psychology Series #3)
People showing authenticity by jumping into air freelyPhoto Credit: Antoine Gady

Do you always feel like you’re able to be yourself, or do you feel that you sometimes have to change who you are in certain situations? If you’re like many people, you might sometimes feel inauthentic—in other words, that you can’t act in ways that reflect how you really feel. However, psychologists have suggested that authenticity (an important concept in positive psychology) may be a key part of well-being, and—importantly—that it’s possible to increase how authentic we feel in our daily lives. In today’s post, I’ll review the research on authenticity, discuss its relationship to well-being, and suggest ways that you can work to cultivate authenticity.

“I think when you’re authentic, you end up following your heart, and you put yourself in places and situations and in conversations that you love and that you enjoy.” – Neil Pasricha, Author of Blog 1000 Awesome Things

What is Authenticity?

Psychologist Kennon Sheldon and his colleagues describe authentic behavior as behavior that we have freely chosen and which allows us to express who we are. In other words, authentic people act in ways that reflect their values and identity. Authenticity can be difficult to define because it’s different for everyone. For example, a behavior that might feel authentic for one person could feel inauthentic for someone else. Ultimately, however, authenticity involves feeling like “yourself” and not feeling like you’re wearing a “mask” that prevents others from seeing who you are. In humanistic psychology, authenticity is seen as crucial for well-being, and a lack of authenticity can result in psychopathology.

According to Alex Wood (who is known for studying positive psychology) and his colleagues, authenticity has three components. The first component, self-alienation, refers to whether someone feels like they know and understand themselves (since a person who doesn’t truly understand themselves would feel more self-alienated and less authentic). The second component is authentic living, which involves feeling like your behaviors reflect your true feelings. The third component is accepting external influence, which involves changing one’s behaviors to fit in or acting in a way that others think you should, and is seen as a sign of less authenticity.

Do most people act authentically all the time, or do they change their behavior from one situation to the next? Psychologists call people’s tendency to change their behavior to match a particular situation self-monitoring. High self-monitors are more likely to change their behavior depending on the social environment they find themselves in, while low self-monitors tend to act similarly across a range of situations. Is it better to be a high or low self-monitor? Psychologists suggest that there are pros and cons to both: too much self-monitoring can cause someone to be seen as inauthentic, while too little can cause someone to be seen as inflexible. As psychologist Gregory Jantz explains for Psychology Today, “While adapting to your environment is certainly beneficial in some situations, shifting your personality completely is problematic.”  In other words, it’s okay to not express exactly what you’re thinking or feeling all the time. For example, if your friend is a terrible singer, you might not want to tell them this in order to spare their feelings—but this is different from being inauthentic. In other words, it’s important to find a balance between expressing ourselves and monitoring the situation to decide on the most appropriate way to respond in a given context.

Are Authentic People Happier?

Neil Pasricha, author of the blog 1000 Awesome Things, explains in a TEDxToronto talk that authenticity may be key to living a good life: “I think when you’re authentic, you end up following your heart, and you put yourself in places and situations and in conversations that you love and that you enjoy. You meet people that you like talking to. You go places you’ve dreamt about. And you end up following your heart and feeling very fulfilled.”  In other words, he suggests that authenticity could be linked to happiness if it it leads us to pursue things that are more enjoyable and fulfilling to us.

What does the research say—are more authentic people indeed happier? In one study, researchers found that people who scored higher on a measure of authentic living reported greater happiness, more positive emotions, and higher self-esteem than people who reported being less authentic. More authentic people also reported having better relationships with others and more personal growth. Similar results were found in another study: more authentic people were found to be happier with their lives and have higher self-esteem.

Another study asked participants how authentic they felt in different life roles (for example, in roles such as friend, employee, student, etc.). The researchers found that, when people felt more authentic in a particular role, they felt less neurotic and were more satisfied with that particular role. Additionally, when participants felt more authentic in general (the average of how authentic they felt in different life roles), they had higher self-esteem and had lower stress, anxiety, and depression. Although these studies don’t show that authenticity necessarily causes greater well-being, they do suggest that authenticity may be an important part of psychological health.

Authenticity and Relationships

Researchers have also found that more authentic people may be happier in their relationships with others. In one study, participants who were in romantic relationships were asked to fill out surveys on their attachment style, how authentic they felt in their current relationship, and how they felt about their relationship. Participants who reported more authenticity in their relationships scored lower on a measure of attachment avoidance—that is, more authentic participants didn’t feel the need to avoid closeness in their relationships. The researchers also found that feeling more authentic in a particular relationship was related to more satisfaction with the relationship overall.

Why Do People Behave Inauthentically?

“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.” – Brené Brown

Although authentic people tend to have happier relationships, many people may avoid authenticity in their relationships because they fear rejection. As Jantz explains, people often are inauthentic because they believe it’s what others want to see: “instead of showing up as yourself, you show up as the person you think everyone else will like.”

Ironically, however, presenting ourselves in the way that we think others want may actually hinder us when we work to build close relationships with others. Psychologist and researcher Brené Brown explains that being authentic in our interactions with others is crucial for developing meaningful relationships. Brown explains that “in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.” When Brown studied research participants who felt fulfilled and connected to others in their personal lives, she found that they had something in common—they were able to be true to themselves: “as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.” In other words, authenticity appears to be crucial for developing closeness and connection to others—but, paradoxically, a fear of rejection may be what keeps us from expressing our authentic selves.

Importantly, however, some people may fear being their authentic selves because they fear that those around them will be less than supportive. For example, for LGBT individuals, people who may face religious oppression, or people who have invisible disabilities, being open about one’s authentic self can involve greater risks. In one study, researchers tested out this idea by asking LGB individuals how they felt about different types of social situations they found themselves in (such as with friends, with family, or with coworkers). The researchers found that when LGB individuals felt that a particular social environment supported their autonomy—in other words, that they felt able to be who they really are—they were more open about their sexual orientation, and in that environment they had lower levels of depression and higher self-esteem. Importantly, coming out to people who were more controlling and less accepting was not linked to higher well-being. In other words, lack of support can be a significant barrier to being one’s authentic self. However, finding more supportive and accepting people to surround yourself with can sometimes be an important first step to living more authentically.

Living More Authentically

Given the importance of authenticity, how can we work to live in more authentic ways? Psychologists have found several techniques we can use to increase feelings of authenticity in our daily lives.

  • Re-frame what vulnerability means. In her TED Talk “Listening to Shame,” Brown explains that one thing we can do is to re-frame vulnerability as a brave act. She points out that people often don’t show vulnerability because they don’t want to seem weak. But when we do open up, others are more likely to applaud our bravery than to judge us. In other words, one way we can work to be more authentic is by reminding ourselves that being vulnerable and authentic is actually a sign of bravery and courage.
  • Cultivate mindfulness. Jantz explains that it’s common for people to have trouble staying focused in the present moment. He argues that staying present and mindful is key for authenticity: “Mastering the art of presence perhaps is the single most effective way to ensure authenticity in any situation.” If you want to try to be more mindful in everyday situations, it’s actually easier than you might think: you can try a phone app to increase mindfulness, or incorporate a short 30-second mindfulness practice into your daily routine.
  • Seek out situations that let you be authentic. Researchers have suggested that self-awareness is an important component of authenticity. According to Jantz, one way to become more authentic is to use this self-awareness to figure out which situations and contexts allow us to be more authentic. If you’re interested in developing this type of self-awareness, psychotherapy can be a safe space to help figure out who you really are. In particular, the humanistic approach to psychotherapy sees authenticity as especially important. Therapists who follow a humanistic approach to psychology work to be authentic in their interactions with clients and help clients to cultivate this type of authenticity for themselves.

Psychologists have found that living with authenticity does seem to be an important part of well-being. People who are authentic tend to be happier, have higher self-esteem, and feel better about their relationships. Despite this, many people struggle to be authentic at times, especially if they worry about being rejected. However, by becoming more comfortable with vulnerability, working to be more mindful, and looking into psychotherapy as a way to figure out who you are and who you want to be, it’s possible to live more authentically.

Additional Reading:

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna.  In addition to HealthyPsych, Elizabeth’s writing has also been published by the Greater Good Science Center.

For more similar content, please visit our Positive Psychology Blog Post Series page.

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