There are people whom you have known or met who have a powerful quality to them; they know themselves, they seem comfortable in their own skin. They may be shy or outgoing, but in either case they don’t appear to be flustered or thrown off balance in a fundamental way very easily, and even when they are, they regain their equilibrium quickly and continue on. They are the same person across many situations.
The quality that you are seeing in such people is integrity.
Integrity is one of those words that can be mysterious and vague. The implication is that when somebody has integrity, you just know it, and they just have it—like someone can have good looks or talent. But there is nothing mysterious about integrity. Living with integrity is way of being in the world that you can practice and master, a set of skills that you can work on and improve; and in doing so, you can have a tremendous positive impact not only on your own life, but on the lives of those around you—even on the culture in which you live.
But first we need to define what integrity means and how you can practice it, and then we can look at what living with integrity can do.
To live with integrity is to literally integrate what you think, know, believe with what you say; and to integrate what you say with what you do. It is a state of consistently weaving and reweaving your understanding of yourself as you grow and learn and experience more of yourself and the world around you.
Integrity also presumes a basic level of honesty, a willingness to look at yourself, to question what you think you know, and to continually look for evidence that what you believe to be true is actually true. This can often take courage. Not everything you find within yourself and others is pleasant, nor is everything that you believe at any given time true.
But as with all virtues, living with integrity is not something that you have, it is something that you do. One does not come into the world with integrity ready-made. Living with integrity requires rationality: the non- contradictory integration of experience. It is fulfilled through living congruently with your understanding and principles. As such, your integrity is always a work in progress.
Because of this, the concept of moral redemption is a prerequisite for actually living with integrity. It’s fine to hold an ideal of how you should behave, but we do not come into the world with perfect knowledge and unwavering moral clarity.
Living with integrity in the real world would be impossible without the possibility of doing something morally wrong, learning from it, taking action to correct it, and, through integrating your experience and adjusting your behavior accordingly as you grow and become a better person.
You may find that you hurt somebody you care about in order to try to impress somebody else; you may realize that you had been undermining somebody else’s success because you were feeling envy toward them; or you may come to realize that you had abetted others in some fraud because you had so much invested in them already—personally, emotionally, monetarily—that you suspended your own awareness of their and/or your own wrongdoing.
The pain and shame of confronting such actions, and if possible making up for the harm that you caused, is part of the process of integration. Avoiding these feelings can keep you from learning from what you did wrong and from growing as a person.
You don't have to be in a position of great power to have a positive impact on our culture.
The decision to live with integrity—the devotion to pursue rationality through the non-contradictory integration of experience and to live your life according to your understanding and principles—can be a very liberating experience. A commitment to living with integrity involves adopting a few general principles that can serve as guideposts to moral decision-making: You decide to value what is true; to strive to understand yourself and the world; to understand others, which requires empathy; to know what you value; to know what you believe. You decide to pay attention to feedback—pain, satisfaction, joy, disappointment, and genuine admiration—that suggest that you have something to learn and integrate; and you decide to pay attention to these on an ongoing basis.
When you feel ashamed or disappointed, your decision to live with integrity draws you to look at what you are doing that has set you off track.
Sometimes this happens later than you would like. Then you need the courage to face the shame and regret that can make integrating such lessons so very demanding. These can be the most difficult moments in a life of integrity—but in hindsight they can be the moments you can feel the greatest pride over—or, in failing to do so, the greatest loss.
This is the personal, individual experience and action of living with integrity. But we do not live in a vacuum, isolated from others. The impact that we have upon each other is significant, and in this, the role of a person living with a high degree of integrity is substantial.
It is not simply wishful thinking that a man with integrity can have a significant impact on the integrity of others. We know from some very interesting research what a profound effect we can have on each other’s behavior, for good or ill. But what is not as well-known is how much more powerful the influence is for good, from the living example of a person living with integrity.
Your personal relationships, and even those people who are three degrees of separation away from your personal relationships—friends of friends of friends—are your sphere of influence, and you are theirs. What you say and do makes a real impact on those around you and even on those a moderate distance away.
In a 2007 study, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, drawing on a pool of over 12,000 subjects, found out just how powerful your personal contacts with people can be. Here are some examples:
• A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese.
• Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40%.
• If one spouse became obese the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37%.
• For every happy friend you have, your likelihood of being happy yourself increases by 9%.
In other studies, the two researchers found that you can have a remarkable effect on others even several steps removed from your direct contact:
• If your friend’s friend’s friend quit smoking, you would be much more likely to quit smoking. Beyond the third friend removed, this effect drops off to insignificance.
• Even happy people you’ve never met, three degrees of separation away, have a positive effect on your own happiness.
Good and bad behaviors pass from friend to friend; we influence each other’s health and happiness just by our social interactions.
Do these findings defy the principles of individualism and freedom of choice? After all, if we’re just passive recipients of social behavior, what’s the use? Should we just flow with the tide of social influence? No. This is not the lesson to take from these examples, and I’ll show you why you have more say about the standards of our culture than you may give yourself credit for.
Living with integrity is a supreme act of individual consciousness; as you live with greater integrity, you literally become more truly yourself. We can see proof of the power of integrity contained in one of the most interesting psychological experiments ever conducted.
You might be familiar with the experiments Stanley Milgram chronicled in his book, Obedience to Authority. Milgram sought to study the degree to which people would follow the dictates of an authority figure into clearly unacceptable territory.
In these experiments, subjects entered a room in which there was an authority figure wearing an official white lab coat. The subject was instructed that his or her job was to administer a shock to another subject in the next room whenever that subject answered a question incorrectly. The first subject—the one giving the (pretend) shock—had no idea that the second subject—the one to be shocked—was in on the experiment and was just acting.
As you live with greater integrity, you become more truly yourself.
The first subjects thought they were just there to assist the experimenter, but they were the ones who were actually being studied. In front of them was a panel of switches marked with increasing voltage from 15 to 450 volts. Toward the upper range of voltage the switchboard was marked “Danger, severe shock” and then, past that, “XXX.”
As the shocks were given, whenever the subjects would look to the authority figure, or question what they were supposed to do, the figure simply answered emphatically, “The experiment requires that you continue.”
As the subjects gave the shocks, the pretend subjects from the other room expressed pain, pleaded to be released, screamed, and then finally yelled loudly that they had heart pains. Once the shocks reached 330 volts, there was just silence.
What percentage of subjects do you think continued on through the expressions of pain, the screams, and the ominous silence through the full range of shocks?
If you’re not familiar with this study, I doubt that you would guess correctly. Milgram himself expected very few. But fully 65% administered the full range of electric shock—past the danger zone, through the XXX, all the way to 450 volts.
But here’s a fascinating, inspiring, and little known piece of this study: When subjects came in and witnessed another subject refuse to continue, 90% of these subjects would then refuse to continue themselves!
Think about that again for a moment: When people who are urged by an authority to do harm see other people refuse to do so, only 10% continue to comply.
In practice, what this means is that people are watching. What you do in your daily life can have a very positive—or negative—effect on the people around you. Far from suggesting that you are at the mercy of social forces, this makes a strong case for asserting your own leadership and personal virtue.
When you return that extra change from a miscalculated bill, when you don’t go along with others in your group who are willing to fudge data, or appease a bully, or gossip, or intentionally hurt somebody, other people are influenced, and that is very likely to make a real impact.
When you choose to behave with honor and integrity—particularly when other people aren’t doing so—somebody will notice, and will then be very likely to make a different and better decision as a result.
When you behave with good manners, expressing gratitude, saying “please,” and treating everyone you see with respect and goodwill, that makes others feel better, and it also makes it easier for those others to pass that attitude along.
And when you clearly and confidently express your support for liberty, responsibility, and the positive virtues of individualism—particularly if you do so with dignity and respect—there are people who will notice, and your example will have an effect.
You don’t have to be in a position of great power to have a positive impact on our culture. It is in our day-to-day lives that most of us make our greatest impact. When you decide to disregard the negative status quo; when you live actively and congruently with who you are and what you value, you have a much greater influence than those who allow themselves to be drawn away from their moral center.
Good and bad behaviors pass from friend to friend.
But this takes practice. Learning and mastering living with integrity is no different in principle from learning and mastering a musical instrument. You get good at whatever you practice. If you practice going along with the status quo regardless of your own values and understanding, you will get good at following others and at abdicating your own moral clarity. If you practice integrating your thoughts, feelings, and knowledge with your words and actions, actively living with integrity, you will get good at becoming more profoundly who you are, and you will have the power of moral clarity and a more unified purpose within yourself.
You and I decide what kind of cultural world we live in. Do you want to make things better? Live with courage and integrity in your everyday life—be strong, kind, effective, just, honorable, and polite; stand up boldly and unequivocally for individual liberty and limited government—and set the example for others to follow. If you pay attention, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much power your own integrity actually holds.
Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives , by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler.
The Christakis Lab at Harvard University
Joel F. Wade is a California-based marriage and family therapist and life coach. He's a columnist for Jack Wheeler's To The Point News and American Thinker, and the author of Mastering Happiness: Ten Principles for Living a More Fulfilling Life.