We’ve Lost the True Meaning of Cynicism

By: Arthur Brooks
HTBAL 1.20.2022

There are a growing number of Marxists today. By which I mean followers of Groucho, not Karl. “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” Marx sang in his 1932 film, Horse Feathers. “I don’t know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway.”

What was satire then is ideology today: Cynicism—the belief that people are generally morally bankrupt and behave treacherously in order to maximize self-interest—dominates American culture. Since 1964, the percentage of Americans who say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has fallen 53 points, from 77 to 24 percent. Sentiments about other institutions in society follow similar patterns.

Whether cynicism is more warranted now than ever is yours to decide. But it won’t change the fact that the modern cynical outlook on life is terrible for your well-being. It makes you less healthy, less happy, less successful, and less respected by others.

The problem isn’t cynicism per se; it’s that modern people have lost the original meaning of cynicism. Instead of assuming that everyone and everything sucks, we should all do it like the ancient Greek cynics, who rebelled against convention in a search for truth and enlightenment.

The original cynicism was a philosophical movement likely founded by Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, and popularized by Diogenes of Sinope around the fifth century B.C. It was based on a refusal to accept the assumptions and habits that discourage people from questioning conventional dogmas, and thus hold us back from the search for deep wisdom and happiness. Whereas a modern cynic might say, for instance, that the president is an idiot and thus his policies aren’t worth considering, the ancient cynic would examine each policy impartially.

The modern cynic rejects things out of hand (“This is stupid”) while the ancient cynic simply withholds judgment (“This may be right or wrong”). “Modern cynicism [has] come to describe something antithetical to its previous meanings, a psychological state hardened against both moral reflection and intellectual persuasion,” the University of Houston’s David Mazella wrote in The Making of Modern Cynicism.

There were no happiness surveys in Antisthenes’s times, so we can’t compare the ancient cynics’ life satisfaction with those around them who did not share their philosophy. We can most definitely conclude, however, that modern cynicism is detrimental. In one 2009 study, researchers examining negative cynical attitudes found that people who scored high in this characteristic on a personality test were roughly five times more likely to suffer from depression later in life. In other words, that smirking 25-year-old is at elevated risk of turning into a depressed 44-year-old.

Modern cynics also suffer poorer health than others. In 1991, researchers studying middle-aged men found that a cynical outlook significantly increased the odds of death from both cancer and heart disease—possibly because the cynics consumed more alcohol and tobacco than the non-cynics. In one 2017 study on middle-aged Finnish men, high cynicism also predicted premature mortality. (Although both of these studies involved only men, nothing suggests the results are gender-specific.)

Adding insult to injury, people tend not to respect cynics. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 2020, psychologists found that cynical attitudes lead to being treated disrespectfully—possibly because cynics tend to show disrespect to others, leading to a vicious cycle. You won’t be surprised to hear, then, that cynical people also earn less than others. Scholars writing in 2015 found that, even after correcting for gender, education, and age, the least cynical people saw an average monthly increase in income of about $300 over nine years. The most cynical saw no significant income increase at all. The authors explain this pattern by noting that cynics “are more likely to forgo valuable opportunities for cooperation and consequently less likely to reap the benefits of joint efforts and mutual help.” In other words, being a misanthrope is costly.

To improve your well-being, you shouldn’t merely try to avoid cynicism in all its forms. Instead, work to become a true cynic, in its original sense.

The ancient cynics strove to live by a set of principles characterized by mindfulness, detachment from worldly cravings, the radical equality of all people, and healthy living. If this sounds like Christianity or even Buddhism, it should: Greek philosophers, including skeptics, who were contemporaries of the cynics, were probably influenced by Indian traditions when they visited the subcontinent with Alexander the Great, and in the following centuries, the ideas of cynicism and its offshoot stoicism heavily influenced early Christian thought.

To pivot from the modern to the ancient, I recommend focusing each day on several original cynical concepts, none of which condemn the world but all of which lead us to question, and in many cases reject, worldly conventions and practices.

1. Eudaimonia (satisfaction)

The ancient cynics knew that lasting satisfaction cannot be derived from a constant struggle for possessions, pleasures, power, or prestige. Happiness can come only from detaching ourselves from the world’s false promises. Make a list of worldly rewards that are pulling at you—such as a luxury item or the admiration of others—and say out loud, “I will not be subjugated by this desire.”

2. Askesis (discipline)

We cannot clear our mind of confusion and obfuscation until we stop anesthetizing ourselves, whether it be with drugs and alcohol or idle distractions from real life. Each day, forgo a detrimental substance or habit. Instead of watching television after dinner, go for a walk. Instead of a cocktail, have a glass of water, and consider the refreshment you get from every sip. This discipline promises to strengthen your will and help you adopt routines that improve your happiness.

3. Autarkeia (self-sufficiency)

Relying on the world—especially on getting approval from the world—makes equanimity and true freedom impossible. Refuse to accept your craving for the high opinions of others. Think of a way that you habitually seek validation, be it for your looks, your cleverness in school, or your material prosperity. Make a plan to ignore this need completely. Note that this is not a modern-cynical practice of rejecting everything about the world; rather, you will simply be refusing to accept its conventional standards.

4. Kosmopolites (cosmopolitanism)

Seeing ourselves as better or worse than others sets us against one another and makes love and friendship difficult, which is self-destructive. This can be as obvious as thinking, I am better than someone else because I was born in this country, or as subtle as feeling slightly superior to a colleague because of my academic affiliation. Start each day by reminding yourself that the world belongs equally to everyone, and resolve not to treat anyone differently because of her status. Act exactly the same with your boss and your barista.

The modern cynic is miserable because he is enchained to the outside world, which oppresses him because it is corrupt. The ancient cynic, by contrast, is happy—not because she thinks the outside world is perfect (it obviously is not) but because she chooses to focus on the integrity of her interior world, over which she has control.

One famous (and perhaps apocryphal) story summarizes the power of this latter way of living. Diogenes, the philosopher who popularized cynicism, was known for showing no bias toward any party or clique, and was thus not well liked by those in power, who could have given him a comfortable life. One day, a philosopher named Aristippus, who was much favored by the royalty, found Diogenes in the task of washing vegetables, a low and disdained food for the ancient Greeks. Far from being ashamed of his paltry diet, Diogenes reminded Aristippus, “If you had learnt to eat these vegetables, you would not have been a slave in the palace of a tyrant.”

If you want to be a good cynic and a happier person, learn to eat your vegetables. They may not seem like a sumptuous feast to the people around you, but you’ll find that they nourish you far more than the empty calories of social conformity.

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