Delusion: the key to a more perfect U

The results are in, and they are startling: According to Dr. Benjamin Karney, a psychology professor at the University of Florida, intimate relationships often succeed for somewhat surprising reasons. Common interests, for example, don’t always make for healthy relationships. Common experiences don’t ensure satisfaction either. Even effective communication — the ’90s cure-all for conflict — isn’t always enough to guarantee happiness. The secret to bliss and harmony, Karney has found, is an often-practiced, but seldom-applauded human action:
As part of a 27-year study of married couples, Karney found that spouses who lied to one another often had more successful relationships than spouses who didn’t. Of course, not all lies are created equal. There are the social interaction lies, where you might say “nice haircut” when you’re really wondering if the person you’re speaking to is auditioning for a part in a Guns ‘n’ Roses video. Then there are lies of the “No, your honor, I didn’t park the bomb-laden Ryder truck in front of the federal building” variety. The lies Karney studied are ones that promote self-delusion — specifically, lies that make one feel better about the present by making the past seem worse than it really was.
Karney examined 20 years of interviews in which spouses were asked to rate the happiness of their marriage and compare their current happiness with past happiness. Consistently, spouses whose marriages endured remembered the past as worse than they had rated it at the time of their earlier interviews. Couples who divorced were usually more accurate in their assessments of the past — unfortunately, that caused them to become so depressed about the present that their marriages broke up.
Karney’s study, currently under review for publication, is limited only to marriages, and he stresses that his findings shouldn’t be generalized to other types of relationships. But I think he’s on to something big. So big, in fact, that the establishment of self-delusion as the true basis of happiness will allow people to understand how to have not only happy marriages, but fulfilling careers, warmer winters and satisfying physical self-esteem. To successfully pursue happiness, lying is the key. It’s the way to run a relationship, a life — and a University.
Universities are not exactly marriages, of course; for one thing, experience has shown that marriages are easier to scrap than tenure codes. Still, you don’t have to look too far to see self-delusion running rampant at the University. Begin with your stomach. Aramark Corp.’s $16.8 million contract with the University — the largest food contract among U.S. universities — will improve food quality, ensure workers’ job security and increase the University’s share of the local food market from 18 to 30 percent while helping other local food vendors. Does this seem like pie in the sky to you? Apparently, privatization of food service was necessary because of (gasp!) operating losses approaching $1.6 million — about one bazillionth of the University’s operating budget. And of course, in-house solutions were deemed impractical. At the University, the way to a better tomorrow is to escape the oppressive past. New ideas! Stronger relationships! A bold path in the pursuit of happiness!
Much of the tasty Aramark food we’ll all want in the next decade will be eaten in the renovated Coffman Memorial Union. Poor Coffman. In the 1960s and ’70s it was a student mecca, but after its last renovations in 1972 student traffic slowed to a trickle. But with a visionary master plan that includes user-friendly area redesigns and a great new food service, Coffman — if you believe the planners — will once again become a hub of activity, unlike those dead days of the ’80s and ’90s.
Unfortunately, that line of thought shows a double delusion. Not only is the past made out to be worse than it was (what were students doing in the ’80s? Staying out of Coffman and prepping for Guns ‘n’ Roses videos?) the past past is glorified in comparison to the recent past, outside of its historical context. You want student activity on the scale of the 1960s? Do you want to rebuild Memorial Stadium? Why not declare war on Vietnam — that would definitely increase interest in Coffman’s political table displays. Regardless of new services or redesigns, Coffman will be about as active as students are in general. A better sandwich will not defeat the trends of history.
But maybe a better modem will. For much of the Yudof administration the DIGITAL UNIVERSITY (all caps, please) is the key to present and future happiness — much like other University-revitalization plans that have come and gone. The Digital U, you see, is going to lead us into the 21st century as a technological leader among prestigious research universities. Of course, years from now when The Yudof Legacy stories are being written in this newspaper, the results of the Digital U will, undoubtedly, be seen as mixed.
That’s how self-delusion works. We’re not exactly sure how we’re going to become the Digital U and we’re asking the Legislature for gobs and gobs of money, but we’ve got a plan, kind of. And it sure beats U2000 — that plan was too vague, and weren’t we just muddling along during the Hasselmo years? Or how about Retrenchment and Reallocation, or Commitment to Focus, or any other comprehensive plan that was later abandoned?
Universities, like any other living entity, need to believe in progress — in a feeling that yesterday wasn’t that great, but things are okay now and only gonna get better. Whether they actually do or don’t is almost beside the point — it’s the delusion that makes the pursuit of happiness sustainable. That’s how the marriages Karney studies survive — even when couples aren’t really as happy as they used to be, people believe that they are, and that their happiness will grow. The University often conducts itself the same way. In fact, self-delusion might be a key component of progress. To move forward with new ideas, people have to be motivated to believe that things will improve, and that the past had flaws that can and should be corrected.
Will the University ever pull 30 percent of the food market? Possibly not. But if it makes it into the mid-20s, that’s improvement — and we can hope it doesn’t hurt other businesses too much, and that workers remain vigilant about their conditions. Will Coffman become the hot new hangout for the University community? Not without another war — but it would be nice if study space were more efficiently allocated. And will the University become the hub of all things digital? It’s unlikely — but if the University becomes an important stop on the information superhighway, then Yudof and his Texas invasion did some good.
So the next time you read about a vague plan that does nothing more than supplant the last vague plan, or you find out that something needs to be fixed when you didn’t even know it was broken, remember that such are the ways of a successful relationship. Although the past was never that bad, the future will never be that good, and the present is every bit as absurd as you think it is, keep believing otherwise — and when things don’t turn out, use selective memory to justify the next big thing.
Long live progress. I think I’ll take a walk outside now — it’s so much nicer than it was last winter. I can’t wait to eat some of that privatized Coffman food — it’s going to be delicious. Maybe there will be extra modems now that all the students will want to access their e-mail there. And you know, I’ve been seeing a lot of really nice haircuts lately.
Successful living isn’t about honesty. It’s about being happy. Use your delusions.
Alan Bjerga’s column appears every Wednesday. He can be contacted at [email protected]