Why are we so cynical?
I just finished watching Justin Rosenstein’s excellent Keynote @ TCDisrupt (he delivers a rather powerful message about why we should think beyond our own selves and solve important problems that make the world a better place). The reason for this blog post, however, is the Q&A after his talk. There was just SO much cynicism in the Q&A that followed that my inner optimist could not take it & I felt compelled to address the issue.
Premise: Being cynical, like being happy, is a choice. It’s not a necessary bi-product of our circumstances. Just because we go through bad experiences in our life, does not mean that we have the prerogative to be cynical. When certain parts of our lives don’t pan out the way we hoped, the easiest way to deal with the situation is to build a wall of cynicism around ourselves. To say: ‘life was unfair to me’, or ‘I guess I’m just not supposed to get X’, or blame it on people, circumstances, destiny, God; take your pick.
I strongly believe that being cynical is a sign of weakness. An optimist is not a person who has a positive outlook towards life when everything is rosy and things are working out in their favor. Anyone can be an optimist in those circumstances. The real optimist is one who chooses to believe, and chooses to be happy, when everything around them is falling apart. That requires real strength of character. That is the kind of person that deserves our greatest respect.
We all start out with big visions of who we want to be and how we want to change the world. But as we go through the grind, the bubble we live in pops, certain things in life don’t work out the way we hoped; sometimes we find that we ourselves are not able to rise to the challenges life lays out before us. It can be demoralizing, no matter how smart you think you are. And inevitably, even the best of us, even those destined to be the Steve Jobs’ & the J. K. Rowlings of the world, experience significant personal failures. When that happens, for the first time we discover this substantial gulf between where we are and where we thought we should be. This is a very important moment is our lives. There are two ways people deal with this moment:
- Some people become bitter, they tell themselves that the good life is not going to happen for them and they stop trying. With enough of these experiences of failure, what starts out as self doubt manifests itself into a full blown attitude of bitterness. And a cynicist is born. OR
- There are those of us who have this crazy innate belief in the certainty of the goodness of the final outcome. These people see these incidents of failures as minor setbacks, something that they must overcome, because of course everything is going to work out just fine in the end! Their belief in the certainty of life being this beautiful thing is so strong, that they never succumb to cynicism. Their faith in the
possibilitycertainty of the outcome they seek, and their ability to get to this outcome, is so absolute that they just plough on.
Which of these do we think lead happier lives? I’m going to hazard a guess and say that it’s the second kind. A person who goes through their worst moments, through times when their world is coming crashing down around them and still doesn’t give into cynicism, the kind of person who chooses to be an optimist, and to treasure every moment of life, to believe in the inherent goodness of the world and the people around them, despite the fact that they’ve seen their share of gut wrenching life experiences, is my personal hero.
People who are optimists are often that way by the sheer force of their wills, not necessarily because they’ve had a rosier, calmer life. Because honestly, no one’s life is perfect. Neither happiness, nor cynicism is a function of the money you have, or of the circumstances you were born in, or the success you achieve in your life. From my interactions with people so far, optimism and cynicism exist in an even distribution in people at both ends of the spectrum: Upper East Siders, residents of the part of Manhattan that has the world’s highest concentration of billionaires, are as full of cynicism (if not more) than people from faraway countries who came from humble homes, torn families and no education. (Manhattan incidentally is the perfect example of a near perfect distribution of cynicism across any metric that you might care to measure: social classes, race, financial well-being, career, life partner, success.)
To be cynical or not, then, is a matter of choice. Optimists choose to be happy & to believe in the certainty of their desired outcomes, even when there is no logical reason to do so. And then by the sheer force of their wills & their refusal to give up, they bring those desired happy outcomes into their lives, a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
To conclude, Optimism is not about being airy fairy or living in a bubble. It is the most powerful force that we have at our disposal, one that can completely change the quality of lives. So when you find yourself tempted to take the easy way out and hide behind a veil of cynicism next time, remember: being an optimist in the face of difficulty is the ultimate act of courage.
And if you’re still iffy about being an optimist, I’ll let Conan convince you: