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A Field Guide to the Cynic

Nothing really matters to these bitter (yet entertaining) pessimists.

"The world belongs to people with IQs of 120. Anything much greater or less amounts to a liability," Rick Bayan muses on his bile-coated Web site The Cynic's Sanctuary, a home for "disgruntled idealists, subversive wits, professional misfits, skeptical jesters, curmudgeons, and misanthropes."

Back when he was a newly minted history graduate, Bayan was convinced his knowledge of ancient wars and English monarchs would lead to a creative, lucrative job. "I thought the world was going to come out and greet me," he says.

Bayan's first dead-end gigs, editing obscure trade publications like Rubber Age and Container News, were enough to start the pessimistic wheels turning in his brain. He became moody and depressed, apt to deliver angry retorts to anyone who got in his way. After leaving a job as staff writer for a publication on plumbing, where he "couldn't develop the knack of writing gracefully about floor flanges and soil stacks," Bayan realized his consistently negative and suspicious outlook qualified him as a card-carrying cynic.

Bayan's beliefs were perhaps more naive than hopeful. But his disillusionment, depression, and hostility (along with defensive pessimism) all form the constellation of traits that make up the cynic.

Pop culture portrayals of cynics imply their dim worldview is just part of their constitution—think of Dr. Seuss's Grinch. Indeed, psychologists agree that cynicism is at least partly in the genes. People who have an inborn tendency toward depressive disorders are at increased risk of developing a cynical outlook, and Yale University cognitive psychologist Frank Keil found that children as young as 7 begin responding cynically to suspect statements as part of normal development. But University of California-Irvine personality researcher Salvatore Maddi contends that many cynics are more like Bayan: They aren't so much born as made.

According to Maddi, the first seeds of cynicism are often planted when people put in effort to achieve a goal like snagging a promotion at work
or raising a self-sufficient child—and then see their high hopes dashed.

This disconnect between expectation and reality gives budding cynics a feeling of helplessness, prompting the emergence of a hallmark of the cynical personality: the sense that nothing anyone does in life really matters.

Such helplessness marks depression, too. While cynical people are at no greater risk for depression, says Michael Yapko, a clinical psychologist, those who ruminate on their pessimistic thoughts are. Another distinction between general grumpiness and a diagnosable disorder, Yapko says, is whether one's cynical attitude is directed toward just one realm of life—the government, say—or toward family members, work, and everything else.

A few cynics become clandestine rule breakers. Most, however, merely keep their critical antennae extended at all times—trained disproportionately on others, not themselves, which leads them to be suspicious of people's motives. "When we're being cynical, we're always looking for evidence that something is fishy with a situation," says Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who has conducted studies on employee cynicism.

Of course, this kind of unforgiving judgment is sometimes justified, which is why cynics have always aroused so much interest and provoked so much hilarity: Cynics can count Friedrich Nietzsche, Dorothy Parker, and Oscar Wilde among their forebears. As columnist Molly Ivins has written, "It's hard to argue against cynics—they always sound smarter than optimists because they have so much evidence on their side."

When Bitterness Is Bad For You

Don't stop parroting Daily Show host Jon Stewart just yet, but a cynical outlook really can take years off of your life. Thanks to their nihilistic bent, cynics tend to engage in more self-destructive behaviors than their sunnier peers. Research has shown that they smoke and drink more, and are more likely to commit suicide.

Cynics also suffer and die from heart problems in disproportionate numbers. Cardiologist Donald Haas at New York's Mount Sinai Medical School found that suspicious people who suffer from heart disease are more than twice as likely as their more optimistic counterparts to end up gravely ill or hospitalized for their condition. Haas speculates that cynics may be less likely to follow doctors' orders—either out of spite or despondency.

Why A Small Daily Dose Of Cynicism Works

Though cynicism may not be healthy in the long run, it can serve as an emotional coat of armor that blunts life's everyday indignities. Philip Mirvis, a cynicism researcher at Boston College, says cynics' caustic, detached outlook on life, also known as defensive pessimism, helps "protect them from what they imagine to be the slings and arrows of hustlers and higher-ups." If they assume from the outset that a client can't be trusted, or that a new mother-in-law will be a witch, they'll be well prepared in the event these fears come true.

Casting a cynical eye on situations you can't control reduces your emotional attachment to a particular outcome, says Yapko, and actually lowers your vulnerability to depression.

Cynics' propensity to spot setups and snow jobs before the rest of us also makes them socially valuable. Infamous cynic Maureen Dowd, for instance, did a Pulitzer-winning job of highlighting tragic flaws in the Clinton administration. "Cynics deserve more respect than they get," Bayan says. "You need naysayers who will shout down ideas that are extreme or just plain foolish."

How To Be An Optimistic Cynic

No, it's not an oxymoron. A good dose of cynicism is fine—healthy, even—but moderating your cynical tendencies will help ensure your well-being doesn't slip away.

  • Rule out depression

    A global feeling of helplessness and hopelessness suggests a clinical condition, so get screened by a professional to
    see if therapy could brighten your bleak outlook.

  • Be selectively cynical

    To maintain balance, keep your critical sense honed, but don't
    let it interfere with your genuine enjoyment of, say, a gorgeous sunset or an unexpected windfall.

  • Seek out fellow cynics

    When the voices in your head won't quit trumpeting your own uselessness, you need the aid of some perspective from sympathetic friends who won't hesitate to snap you out of it.

  • Do little things to make a difference

    Random acts of kindness aren't necessary, but improving the world will help revive your sense of agency. If you're frustrated with political extremists, start a blog that pokes holes in their logic.