Want to Be Happy? Try Being Honest

“I’ve been keeping an honesty journal for the past several months. With honesty much in the news lately — you might even say honesty is having a cultural moment — I wanted to reflect on my own. My 6-year-old daughter once told me that telling the truth made her feel ‘gold in her brain.’ The day I started the journal, the same 6-year-old daughter asked me during her bath if the cat really went to sleep last year, and if that actually meant that I had killed him. I rinsed her hair and sighed, wondering if I should wait to start this honesty project until my children were grown.” J. Ketteler, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Excerpt: How Honesty Could Make You Happier by Judi Ketteler, The New York Times

“But I braved it and told her that yes, I had made the choice for him to die, because he was suffering and I wanted him to be at peace. She lost interest about halfway through my explanation, which was O.K. with me. It struck me that the choice to lie or be honest was often a choice between two equally undesirable things. Telling my daughter the truth did not make me happier, but lying wouldn’t have either.

Children learn the truth from their parents

A bigger opportunity arose with my 8-year-old son. Though he didn’t know anything about the journal, after a few weeks, he seemed to open up in a new way, asking me things he was too embarrassed or scared to ask before, like what the word ‘pimp’ meant and why people kill themselves. In fact, one of my biggest takeaways was that we shouldn’t lie to children when they are asking us about grown-up words or ideas — otherwise, they will just ask Siri.

Even the hard questions should be answered truthfully. milliyettiff

A recent study at the lab suggests that we are more likely to tell a prosocial lie when we feel compassion toward someone, because if you feel bad for someone, the last thing you want to do is hurt them with the truth. These lies feel better in the short term, but they often do more harm than good in the long. After all, the brutal truth can be painful, but people need to know it if they are to improve their performance, especially in a work or school situation.

Over all, I found that I struggled more with the small instances of honesty, rather than the big. So, when a client accidentally paid me twice for a project — sending a duplicate $1,000 check a week after they’d already paid me — there was no internal debate. It was $1,000, so obviously, I notified the client. But when the McDonald’s drive-thru cashier gave me an extra dollar in change and the line had been So long and all I wanted was a Diet Coke and my kids were acting crazy in the back seat and why was this stupid McDonald’s always so slow anyway?! . . . it was a different story. Even though I gave the dollar back, I almost didn’t, because an extra dollar was such a small thing and seemed somehow justified.

Had I not been focused on honesty, I’m not sure I would have given it back…I like the saying, ‘Everybody wants the truth, but nobody wants to be honest.’ I didn’t always want to be honest. But I wanted the truth, and this focus on honesty helped me feel that I was doing my part.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article. 

Pre-reading Organizer By Scholastic


II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. My plan was to jot down different instances throughout the day.
  2. People are more likely to tell a prosocial lie.
  3. Many times you want to be nice and encourage friends.
  4. In reality people do not like rejection.
  5. The truth can be brutal at times.
  6. The news article sparked my curiosity.
  7. The compulsion to be honest is strong in some of us.
  8. Her experience was consistent with what behavioral economist Dan Ariely wrote about in his 2012 book.
  9. His research showed that we fudge the truth by about 10 percent or so.
  10. My social media self wasn’t a lie.

Reading Comprehension

True /False/NA-Statements

Directions: Review the following statements from the reading.  If  a statement is true they mark it T. If the statement is  not applicable, they mark it NA. If the statement is false they  mark  it F and provide the correct answer. 

  1. The author’s  plan was to jot down different instances throughout the day where she  had to make a choice about honesty.
  2. Her 10-year-old daughter asked  about the death of her cat.
  3. Her 18-year-old son asked what the word pimp meant.
  4. The author figured that if she didn’t answer her children they would ask the church.
  5. A recent  study showed that we are likely to tell a prosocial lie when we feel compassion toward someone.
  6. Over all,  the author struggled more with the large instances of honesty.
  7. The author wrote a book about the questions of honesty.
  8. McDonald’s  gave the author an extra dollar by mistake.
  9. The author and her family prefer to eat at  restaurants.
  10. The author  pulled way back from posting on YouTube.

Grammar: Identifying Articles

Directions: Have students choose the correct English articles (THE, A, AN)  from those provided to fill in the blanks.

Still, I wondered about those little lies we tell to avoid hurting people’s feelings. Researchers at ___University of California San Diego Emotion Lab are looking at “prosocial” lies — ___white lies we tell to benefit others, like telling ___aspiring writer their story is great because you want to be nice and encourage them, when in reality you know it needs work and will meet rejection.

I also quickly came to realize that___Facebook version of Judi Ketteler, whose life was so together and children so well behaved, was ___very particular version of me. My social media self wasn’t ___lie.

II. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Group Debates

Directions: Divide students into  two teams for this debate. Both teams can use the article  as their source of information or sources from the Web.

Team A will list five reasons for being honest.

Team B will list  five reasons against being honest.

Each team will have time to state their points of view,  and the teacher decides which team made their points.  

For organization, have students use this great Pros and Cons Scale organizer  from Freeology


Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading,  two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.


Category: Social Issues