4 Reasons We Should All Give Up Cynicism
Being more optimistic may feel risky, but it usually pays off.
Posted Jun 25, 2015
Cynicism feels protective. Cynics, after all, question the sincerity of others’ motives and refuse to see the world through rose-colored glasses. This can help them assess threats, be realistic about what they can expect from others or themselves, and avoid being exploited. A little cynicism, however, goes a long way. Too much mistrust, and cynics find themselves losing more than they gain.
If you default to cynicism in your thinking and interactions, make an effort to tap into your more optimistic side. Research into the power of positive thinking shows you’ll find your life improving in important ways, among them:
Consider these statements:
- "I think most people would lie to get ahead."
- "It is safer to trust nobody.”
- "Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it."
If you strongly agree with these, you have high levels of cynical distrust—and a greater risk of developing dementia. That’s the conclusion of a 2014 study that sorted a group of elderly people by their levels of cynicism and then followed them over several years. Those with high levels of cynical distrust were found to be three times more likely to develop dementia than those with low levels.
It’s yet more evidence that your personality and views on life have the power to influence your health. Other research, such as a 2009 study that looked at more than 97,000 women, found that high levels of cynicism are linked to greater rates of mortality, heart disease, and cancer-related deaths.
2. Earning Power
In the working world, you may view yourself as street-smart, a realist, nobody’s fool, but you may just be cheating yourself out of opportunities to succeed. A recent study published by the American Psychological Association found that those who hold more cynical views of others make less money than those who are more trusting. Why? The study believes it’s because the cynical are less likely to collaborate on projects, take advantage of business opportunities, or turn to others when help is needed. They also spend more energy and time attempting to protect themselves from possible deceit. The only place where optimists are not higher earners is in countries with widespread societal cynicism and antisocial behavior—lots of homicides and few charity drives, in other words. Under those circumstances, cynicism might be needed to survive and thrive. In short, cynicism pays off only when everyone around you is cynical, too.
Cynicism in relationships often develops through hard experience: Someone you trust hurts you or lets you down, and you vow it will never happen again. Cynicism then becomes the armor we wear, providing protection for our feelings but keeping others at arm’s length emotionally. When we lay aside the cynicism, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Yes, we may well be hurt again, but we are greatly increasing our chances of a meaningful connection. Research shows that optimism about a romantic partner is much more likely to result in a close relationship. Conversely, when we expect the worst in our connections with others, it’s a good bet we’ll get it.
It may seem wise to be suspicious of the motives of others or our own abilities, but defaulting to this mindset can keep us trapped in misery. I see it among those grappling with addiction, many of whom struggle to believe that anyone can help them, or that they can help themselves. When we dare to leave cynicism behind, however, change becomes possible. Comedian Stephen Colbert may have said it best in a 2006 commencement speech at Illinois’ Knox College:
“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes.’”
Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes a blog about addiction. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees addiction and co-occurring disorders programs at Brightwater Landing in Pennsylvania and Park Bench in New Jersey.