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?
What are Idealism and Cynicism?
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.
How Cynicism is Helpful
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. Meanwhile, an idealist might be tricked by into believing another person’s lies because they don’t believe anyone would be dishonest. We can see why children who are bullied or manipulated 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. This 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”) we might feel less upset if we lose.
How Cynicism Can Harm Us
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. Cardiologist Dr. Donald Haas believes this may be because cynics are less likely to follow doctor’s orders.
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.
How to Become More of an Idealist
Given all this information, a shift towards idealism could be 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. These may include being bullied, or having problems with our parents. Addressing these old wounds in 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, It can be very 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 good book.
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. The employee dropping hints that she wants a raise may need money to send her kid to a 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 treat for an ailing friend, or start a journal where you write all the selfless acts you see. 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 more idealistic behaviors will bring you happiness. 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.