Seeing through cynicism
Cynicism is a defence mechanism that holds us back
AS a hopeless optimist, I spend an awful lot of time watching commencement speeches delivered to graduating students at US universities. Cynics may baulk, but I can’t help but be inspired by the nuggets of wisdom imparted by people who learned hard lessons at the university of life.
Author Neil Gaiman’s rousing commencement address at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts led to an illustrated book, Make Good Art. Nora Ephron’s 1996 speech to students at the all-female Wellesley College — “be the heroine of your life, not the victim” — is still quoted today.
And let’s not forget the poignant life advice dispensed in ‘Wear Sunscreen’. The words are commonly misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut, but were in fact written by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich, who thought it would be fun to write a mock-commencement speech for her weekly column.
There’s a lot to learn from commencement speeches, but I always come back to the wit and wisdom of Stephen Colbert — in particular the speech that the late-night comedian delivered to graduating students of Knox College in 2006.
“Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics,” he told the newly-capped and gowned audience. “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 often think of themselves as worldly-wise and far-sighted but, as Colbert points out, this habitual wariness may in fact be a defence mechanism that protects them from disappointment.
Of course, cynics would argue otherwise. They’ll tell you that they are simply realists who can see the world without the rose-tinted glasses. They’ll tell you that reflexive mistrust keeps them one step ahead of the game. They’ll probably even tell you that humans are fundamentally motivated by self-interest and altruism is only selfishness in disguise.
There is a semblance of truth to all of these statements, but trouble always arises when we don’t leave room for anomalies and outliers. Rather than explore people’s motivations on an individual basis, the cynic blanket-dismisses entire groups. All politicians are corrupt. All men are selfish. All women are crazy.
The dyed-in-the-wool cynic refuses to take a leap of faith on anyone or anything. They remind themselves that their in-built negativity bias has served them well this far and, besides, default pessimism suggests astuteness, whereas happy-clappy optimism suggests ignorant bliss.
In short, cynics like to think of themselves as smarter than the pack — even if research suggests otherwise.
A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin last month examined the lay belief that cynical people are more competent than less cynical people and concluded that they actually do worse on cognitive ability and academic competency tasks. An earlier study found that cynics tend to earn less money too.
The drawbacks of cynicism don’t end there. Various studies have linked an attitude of pessimism and mistrust to lower self-esteem, neuroticism and a higher risk of heart disease, dementia and overall mortality.
Cynicism might feel like a coat of armour to those who wear it, yet study after study suggests that the long-term consequences override the short-term benefits.
Of course, even those who accept that cynicism is detrimental to their health may have difficulty overcoming it. Like it or not, cynicism is a worldview that becomes more entrenched with age — especially for those who derive their identity from being the resident doomsayer. It’s hard to be vulnerable, and it’s even harder when you’ve spent the better part of your life rolling your eyes.
This is why self-identified cynics would benefit from examining their beliefs around cynicism as well as looking at the times when they felt paralysed by it. If you’re a cynic, try asking yourself some honest questions. Have you ever felt that your cynicism about a situation set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy? Have you ever hoped for the worst simply so that your Cassandric predictions would be proved right?
It’s also worth looking back at a time when you weren’t so cynical. What happened that made you mistrust everything and everybody? If you learned cynicism from a parent, take a moment to consider the ways in which their attitude may have held them back. Otherwise, just think of George Carlin’s famous observation: “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”
Social circles should be considered too. Cynics tend to keep company with other cynics, which of course leads to an echo chamber that reverberates with casual contempt. If you want to overcome cynicism, try keeping company with those of an optimistic inclination — if only to notice the effect that it has on your overall outlook.
And don’t worry about being indoctrinated into the cult of positive thinking. Cynics have legitimate concerns about engaging with the “reckless optimism” that author Barbara Ehrenreich warns against, but more balanced people know that they can temper bright-sided thinking with healthy skepticism. After all, it doesn’t have to be either/or; it can be both/and.
Colbert had one final piece of advice for those of a cynical nature. Try saying ‘yes’ instead of delivering a knee-jerk ‘no’. “Cynics always say ‘no’,” he told the graduating students during his commencement address. “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’.”
Cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because
we are afraid it will disappoint us