Just as people aren’t born “good” or “bad,” no one is born a cynic or an idealist. Our view of the world is shaped by our experiences—which is a relief, because it means we can change that view if we see fit. But which should we strive for, cynicism or idealism?
A cynic is someone who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest, while an idealist is guided by, well, their ideals. To illustrate, let’s say you give two people, one an idealist and one a cynic, a candy bar. The idealist is likely to think you did so because of your beliefs—maybe you think the perfect world is one in which everyone is generous. The cynic, on the other hand, will think you have a selfish motive—maybe you want something in return for that candy bar. If you’re not sure which category you fall into, try this quiz from Buzzfeed.
The advantages to idealism aren’t difficult to argue—won’t you be a happier person if you think better of the world around you? Yet cynicism develops for a reason, even in children as young as 7 or 8. At times, it’s situationally advantageous.
By withholding their trust, a cynic might be less vulnerable to being fooled or taken advantage of by a self-interested peer. Meanwhile, an idealist might be tricked by into believing another person’s lies simply because they themselves value the ideal of truth-telling so highly that they don’t believe anyone would be dishonest with them. We can see why children who are bullied or manipulated at school or at home might develop a strong sense of cynicism as a form of self-protection.
For both adults and children, casting a cynical eye on situations we can’t control also reduces our emotional attachment to a particular outcome and lowers our vulnerability to depression. For example, if we enter our name into a sweepstakes and treat the matter cynically (“I’ll never win, those sweepstakes are always rigged, they just want my personal information”) we might feel less upset if we ultimately lose.
Yet despite its many benefits, cynicism can actually be harmful to both our psychological and physical health. To start, research shows that cynics tend to engage in self-destructive behaviors like drinking and smoking more frequently than their peers. Cynics also suffer and pass away due to heart trouble in disproportionate numbers; cynics with heart disease are “more than twice as likely” to end up severely ill or hospitalized for their conditions. Dr. Donald Haas, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Medical School, believes this may be because cynics are less likely to follow doctor’s orders, out of either spite or despondency.
Hostility in the form of cynicism has also been associated with heightened proinflammatory activity, which researchers suspect may exacerbate immune-related diseases. It’s also been associated with higher rates of dementia, likely due to psychosocial and lifestyle-related risk factors.
Finally, if health reasons alone aren’t enough to motivate you towards idealism, studies suggest that cynics suffer financial losses as well. In one study, cynical participants were found to make an average of $300 less per month than their positive counterparts. This may be because cynicism makes us less likely to trust others, leading to lower levels of collaboration in the office.
Given all this information, a shift towards idealism is probably beneficial. Here are a few ways you can make it:
- Heal past wounds: Psychotherapist Amy Morin points out that cynicism often stems from hurtful incidents from our past, such as being bullied or having a tough relationship with our parents. Addressing these old wounds through therapy can help us move past them and see the world from a more balanced lens. Psychodynamic therapy in particular focuses on how early-life experiences continue to shape our thoughts and actions, and can be extraordinarily useful in changing our outlooks.
- Be selectively cynical: It might still make sense to you to be cynical about a manipulative relative or a political candidate, but you don’t need to express cynicism about everything. Think of a few things that it’s okay to just be happy with as they are, like your relationship with your pet or a really good book.
- Cultivate compassion: Other people may act in self-interest, but is that inherently a bad thing? The person who always flakes out on plans might need time to recharge due to a chronic health issue, while the employee dropping hints that she wants a raise may need the money to send her kid to a math tutor. When we can empathize with other people’s motivations, it takes the edge off of our judgment.
- Be the change: If global selfishness is making you sick, then be your own proof that not everyone has to act that way. Start volunteering for a local cause, buy a small treat for an ailing friend or relative, or start a journal where you write all the selfless acts you notice each day, no matter how small. Once you start looking for human kindness and generosity, you’ll notice it more.
A little cynicism is normal and has benefits, but we hope that balancing it with the more optimistic and idealistic behaviors above will bring you a happier, healthier life. Are there any songs, websites, or everyday actions that have made you feel better about the world’s motives? Let us know via Twitter or Facebook! It would be…dare we say…ideal.