Nine Lessons from Mad Men: The Emotional Cost of Dishonesty
How our lies hurt us and how to repair the damage caused by dishonesty
Posted May 20, 2015
One of the goals of this blog is to provide insights about what makes people happy or unhappy, both in the short run and over time. It turns out one thing that may make you happy in the short run, but miserable in the long run, is telling a lie. This post is about the downside of dishonesty and the upside of working to make things right. This month, I saw both an excellent documentary, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, and the entertaining final few episodes of the TV series, Mad Men. Both have insights about lies, cheating, dark secrets and the high cost of deception. Both illuminate the cost of dishonesty and give suggestions for healing the wounds that lies can cause.
Mad Men was sexy and glamorous, and even though it was fictional, it had some genuine life lessons. In contrast, the documentary was backed by fascinating research and real-life examples. In this post, I focus on the lessons we can learn from Mad Men as the final episode just aired this week. However, to learn more about the psychology of dishonesty, I also recommend watching the documentary as well as reading the book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves.
Life Lessons from Mad Men
From the start, the show was full of lies and other forms of dishonesty. Towards the end, the show was full of people coming clean with confessions and apologies.
Peggy taught us that to be truly loved, you need to be authentic. She has been searching for true love for seven seasons now. In season two, we experience Peggy’s darkest and most painful secrets. She has a child out of wedlock, gives it up for adoption, is hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, and is finally rescued by Don. Her secret almost destroys her—but it is kept safe with Don. The fact that Don still respects her, even though he knows what she has done, seems to be what saves her. This brings them much closer together.
It is not until the final season that Peggy shares her secret with her good friend and coworker, Stan. He too accepts her without criticism. In the season finale, Stan confesses he is in love with Peggy. She realizes she loves him too. The fact that he loves her in spite of knowing her secret may be what allows her to believe this love could stick.
Lesson #1: To feel truly loved, you need to be authentic and honest.
As for Betty, her secret comes out only towards the end of the final season. She has lung cancer and only six months to live, and the doctor refuses to tell her without her husband present. She prefers her secret not be shared with anyone else. However, against Betty’s wishes, her husband tells her daughter. Her daughter has always been a rebel, but with the newfound knowledge that her mother is dying, she comes home and becomes the devoted daughter we always knew she could be. Even though her mother wants her to get on with her life, her daughter gives up a trip to Madrid to be with her family during this tough time. The truth brings them together when it matters most.
Lesson #2: When things are dark, you owe it to those that love you to let them know and let them help.
In the final two episodes, Pete remarries the ex-wife whom he had repeatedly cheated on (but supposedly has loved all along), and Roger tells the mother of his "secret love child" (Joan) that he will provide for the child in his will. Both characters are trying to make things right in their own way.
Lesson #3: It is never too late to try to make amends and do the right thing.
In the season finale, Joan discovers her own truth, which is that she won’t give up her career aspirations for any man, even a dreamy, wealthy one she is in love with. Her eyes water as she makes her decision, but she forges ahead with her new business.
Lesson #4: Be true to yourself.
Don Draper has been lying about his identity since the first episode of Mad Men. To escape the pain of the guilt and stress of hiding this big secret, he drinks too much and has countless affairs. The affairs cost him two marriages to women he actually loved. Every now and then someone finds out his secret, either in an effort to destroy him, or because Don confesses. It always brings him closer to that person.
My favorite example of this was in the season six finale, when Don finally shows his kids where he really grew up (a decrepit house of prostitution in a bad area). This happens after he has spent years telling his children about a fictional childhood with a white-picket fence. His daughter looks up at him as if she sees her father for the first time. She seems to appreciate that he is sharing something dark but real.
Lesson #5: The truth will bring you closer to others.
Again in season six, Don tells the truth to a client, the management team of the Hershey Chocolate Company. He tells them he was an orphan, that he was neither loved nor wanted, and that he was raised by prostitutes. He also tells them that Hershey should not spend a penny on advertising. While this is his truth, it costs his agency a huge hunk of business and costs Don his job.
Lesson #6: Sometimes, it is best to keep the truth to yourself. This may be particularly true if you are pitching a potential client.
In the final episode, Don ends up at the Esalen retreat center in Big Sur, California. He calls from a pay phone to say good-bye to his dear friend Peggy. He has known her secret for years and soon she will know his. She hears he is clearly shaken and upset and asks him what he has done that is so bad. He tells her he has broken all his vows (in both marriages), scandalized his child (who walked in on him during one of his affairs), taken another man’s identity (a soldier who died next to him in Korea) and made nothing of any of it. Peggy tries to reassure him that everything will be fine: he can come back. Everyone will forgive him. He can work on the Coke advertising account. But he says it is too late. Although he seems to have gotten something out of his confession, it is clear he should not be alone as he is so shaken that he can’t get up from the floor.
Lesson #7: Confession can be very powerful, but you may need the support of others to deal with the guilt.
After his confession, Don is encouraged to participate in a group therapy session at the retreat center. This is where Don has an opportunity to finally heal. He has confessed, but he must forgive himself to move on. During the most moving scene in the entire series, Don hugs a crying man, a total stranger, whose story is one of never being noticed and never being chosen. On the surface, this is not Don’s story at all. For seven seasons, we have watched Don being chosen by clients, endless lovers and more. He is charismatic, handsome and talented. He is always noticed. Yet when this simple man, who seems so ordinary and plain, shares that he is waiting to feel loved, something in his story resonates deeply with Don. Don stands and walks over to embrace this total stranger who is crying so hard, and they cry together. It is a sincere deep cry for both of them, and perhaps Jon Hamm’s finest moment in his many years of playing Don Draper so brilliantly. All the guilt and shame of Don’s lies seem to be released as he weeps with a perfect stranger. In a sense, by embracing a stranger, Don is realizing that he is not alone in his feeling of being alone. He is not alone in waiting for someone to love him enough.
Lesson # 8: Connecting deeply and authentically with others can reduce one’s guilt, shame and sense of being alone.
Don later meditates over his newfound freedom from self-hate, and ends up being inspired to write the famous Coke ad, which starts with the line, “I would like to build the world a home and furnish it with love.”
At the end of Mad Men, there is a mix of confession, amends-making, deep connection, healing and closure. Sharing the truth brings people closer together. People appear to heal from confessing and trying to make things right. Indeed, in the end, none of the characters in Mad Men seem to be as mad as they once were.
The last lines we hear are from Don’s meditation teacher: "The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led. The lives we get to lead. A new day. New ideas. A new you. Ommm.” The show appears to end like the iconic Coke ad that it ends with, in perfect harmony.
To learn more about the cost of dishonesty and psychology of deceipt, read: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves (by Dan Ariely).
To learn more about research on honesty and to see real life examples of the cost of lies, see the brilliant new documentary (Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies.