- Researchers find that cynicism might cause loneliness, depression, and physical disease.
- There are also positive aspects of cynicism, such as moral courage, independence, and the willingness to live a simple, less driven life.
- There are ways to let go of habitual cynicism as people look and feel deeper, find inner peace, and work constructively with the human condition.
Most people think of cynics as unhappy and mentally unhealthy. While happy people seek to connect with others and give others the benefit of the doubt, cynics would reject them and assume selfish motives.
When someone endorses high for cynicism after filling out the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – a helpful assessment tool I use at my workplace — they are usually seen as disliking humankind. The cynical attitude and subsequent rejecting behavior of human society can cause great loneliness in people. Loneliness is commonly accepted as a major culprit in human unhappiness. We, the most social creatures on Earth, are just not meant to be lonely. Loneliness seems to be a real killer.
If cynicism contributes to loneliness, it is worthwhile examining and possibly letting go of this attitude. Before I make suggestions for how to do just that, let me play devil’s advocate and point out some possible advantages of cynicism.
There are people who do not isolate, but commune over their cynicism. Many comedians are cynical and bond with their audience over their keen, but negative observations of human behavior. People can feel liberated by speaking the truth about conditions that appear to be beneficial on the surface, but are in reality morally corrupt, hypocritical, and even dehumanizing.
Along these lines, cynics might speak truth to power. Their courage to see clearly and voice an unconventional opinion might ignite a fire in others to do the same. Instead of subscribing to the notion of superficial happiness, which is often tied to accumulating riches and chasing success, the cynic might be more independent.
This brings me to my cynical father. As a man of great principle, he rejected the rat race and lived a simple, albeit lonely life. Once, just before the holidays, I asked him if there was anything he needed. With a tired smile on his face, he shared with me the story of the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes. Diogenes, who lived happily and shamelessly in poverty on the streets, was well-known and had quite a following. His ideal was to live a life of self-sufficiency and mental clarity, without conceit and common folly. When Alexander the Great came to ask him if he needed anything, he simply asked Alexander to get out of Diogenes’ sun. Likewise, my father gestured me to get out of his sun, indicating that he was content and that I ought not to believe otherwise.
Diogenes was the student of another Greek philosopher, Antisthenes. Ironically, the word cynic is derived from the Greek word kynikos, which means dog-like. While probably meant to put down the cynics, who seemed to criticize the Greeks' way of life, dogs are generally seen as among the happiest creatures we know. The cynics were aiming at authentic happiness, with its carefree and unclouded mind. In this sense, I believe that there is something to be said for cynicism. It is good to be free of stuff and anxiety-provoking obsessions about one's status.
It is not just due to anecdotal evidence that cynical people tend to be lonely, depressed, prone to heart disease1, inflammatory disease2, and even dementia3. It is good to be honest and free, but it is not good to push away people or to despise them for their attachments. Cynicism might open eyes to the truth, but if it becomes a way of life, a pervasive, negating attitude, it does more harm than good. It is only in the latter case that I propose letting go of or seriously reducing cynicism.
- Look Deeper, Feel Deeper. You might want to shake your own cynicism by looking more deeply into your anger. Instead of thinking merely of how justified your anger is, think of what is behind it in a psychological sense. Anger often hides disappointment. Young people are often cynical when they first realize that their parents are not as perfect as they previously appeared. Adults might appear hypocritical by demanding greatness in school and social conduct while unable to deliver it themselves. Sometimes we widen our disappointment to include the whole of society. Deep into adulthood, we still might have not cried our tears of disappointment, clinging to rigid explanations and self-hatred. It is time to be brave in a different way and to confront the pain that cynicism wants to hide. When loneliness, depression, and self-hatred are severe, this might only be done successfully with therapeutic support.
- Find Inner Peace. Instead of fighting the system, maybe you can find it in your heart to relate to others by identifying your own attachments. Make peace with your own human condition. Admit your own shortcomings.
- Try to Work with Imperfections Constructively. People do not change because someone despises them. Engage in dialogue. Stand up against injustice and hypocrisy, but lead by setting an example with your life and by sharing alternative ways.
Happiness as in "being fully engaged in the present moment"4 does not mean to have perpetual happy feelings, but to live an authentic life with mental clarity. Cynicism is like anger in general: It can be useful and is certainly part of an authentic life. However, when cynicism becomes a hallmark of our personality, we leave the path of happiness. Shake cynicism off by living life mindfully, based on inner peace and, sorry for a cliche that cannot be beat, great love.
© 2021 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.
1) Alexandra Tyra u.a.: Cynical hostility relates to a lack of habituation of the cardiovascular response to repeated acute stress. Psychophysiology, 57/12, 2020, e13681. https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13681
2) Margit Kriegbaum u.a.: The joint effect of unemployment and cynical hostility on all-cause mortality: results from a prospective cohort study, BMC Public Health, volume 19, 2019, Article number: 293. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6622-7
3) Kathleen Bokenberger u.a.: The Type A Behavior Pattern and Cardiovascular Disease as Predictors of Dementia, Health Psychology, 33/12, 2014, 1593–1601
4) Andrea F. Polard (2012). A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life. Sounds True: Boulder. Chapter One features the definition of happiness.