Cynicism is a poison

I’m not a fan of the saccharinely positive with no off-button but cynicism – that can be a poison.

The kind of cynicism I am talking about here has little to do with discernment or healthy realism; the critical thinking required to analyze information or challenge norms, which leads to better outcomes.

I am talking about the kind of person who pans everything.

A hundred great things happen during the day and the only thing the cynic reports: the train was late.

The variations are endless:

  • The boss is stupid
  • The government useless
  • The incompetent supplier stuffed up again.

Perhaps all those things are true. But so are adjacent realities like the 93 percent of times the trains ran on time or many occasions the boss had a great idea.

So why do some only remember the bad things?

For one, humans in general recall unpleasant memories far more easily than positive ones (called negativity bias), doing so probably helped us survive.

It could be pessimists and optimists think differently. Brain scans show a pessimist’s brain lights up in response to negative information, while optimists filter information and believe they are less at risk of a negative event compared to others (optimism bias). We’re not sure yet how valuable these scans are. Looking at what part of the brain lights up has been criticised as an approach.

Knowing we have a bias helps us guard against it, even if it means we have to spend a little more energy thinking about intuitive reactions. Whether wired or habitual, we can’t live on optimist-autopilot.

But is that any different to defaulting to cynicism, the predictable disparaging of people or ideas, the constant carping and fault finding that really grinds you down?

What I am against is the lazy sort of cynicism that looks startlingly like the lazy kind of optimism that cynics criticize.

I think though that in society cynicism is perceived as somehow more realistic and adult. Throw in a bit of sarcasm and you’re dealing with the truly ‘serious’; while optimistic views are seen as frippery, childish.

Perhaps all this noticing of and reporting on negativity would be okay if it inspired people to do something. Vote? Self-reflect? Develop empathy?

Usually it starts and ends with moaning.

I am talking about the kind of person who resents every other view on talkback but listens to it all the same, just so that they can shout at the radio. Negativity is fuel. It can even be an addiction.

It’s exhausting.

It’s reductive of course, to divide people into camps: optimists here, pessimists there. There’s just as great a variation amongst optimists or pessimists as there is between them. Different subjects also press buttons – a happy-go-lucky type can become a fiend on an issue of social justice.

It’s useful to be aware of the quirks of our particular operating system, our tendency to veer this way or that, so that we can take these into account when making decisions.

We may also want to use what we’ve learned about brain functioning to vary the way we see the world.

For example, there’s evidence that our view of life impacts our experience of it and that optimism is associated with wellbeing. (Not blind optimism, but authentic optimism.)

By deliberately focusing on what is good in the environment (without ignoring what is not) we can train our brains to pay attention to the world in healthier ways. One in which we see ‘this and that’. In other words we can develop perspective.

  • Yes the train was late – it just meant the TV went on five minutes later (there were ads anyway).
  • It wasn’t the best idea, but I have to admit that most of the time, my boss has my back.
  • And that is the third time the supplier forgot my order; I need to do something about it.


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