I doubt it...
October 7, 2008 8:18 AM   Subscribe

How can I be less cynical?

With each year that I get older, I get a little more cynical. I can't even watch TV without spitting nails with all the product placement, I hate most movies, I lost faith in the God I was raised to believe in as a child and I find very little joy in most things now a days.

My wife is pissed because I'm so negative and doubtful of everything. She'd like to see me a happier. I've been the counselor route before but most don't understand me so I want to explore other ways to be less cynical (I'm open to books - I love to read)

So does anyone have a way I can start to change my attitude, accept the fact that around every corner someone is going to try to sell me something and maybe restore some faith in *something* (I'll take humanity since I've pretty much given up on a god).
posted by Hands of Manos to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Cynicism and idealism are two cheeks on the same arse, IMHO. Remember that being less cynical doesn't preclude your remaining intelligently skeptical - after all, many of the examples of 'cynicism' you mention would, to many people, form part of a perfectly rational worldview. There's nothing inherently cynical about watching less television, and about not settling for easy answers.

I'd suggest, rather than reading, volunteering might help develop a more balanced attitude. Obviously it'll require some free time, but engaging with human beings on a one-to-one level rather than via the distorted lens of the media will certainly give you food for thought. Of course, it'll be hard work, and not a succession of soft-focus cockle-warming epiphanies, but as a cynic, you knew that already, right?
posted by RokkitNite at 8:31 AM on October 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Rokk,

I did know that but I'D TOTALLY FORGOTTEN. I used to volunteer at a soup kitchen, it was the best time ever. I've got some freetime, I think I'm going to go look up soup kitchens/food banks in my area.
posted by Hands of Manos at 8:37 AM on October 7, 2008

Don't do things (or cut back on things) you know will lead you to acting cynical: watching TV, reading on the internet, whatever. In their place do something else: ride a bike, start a garden, do something that will counteract the sickening things you see in the world.

I'm a firm believer that it's almost impossible to consciously change your attitudes (maybe even a little arrogant to try). Get out of your bad routine/loop of doing things that make you act cynical, and eventually your attitudes will change (probably faster than I'm making it seem, but YMMV).
posted by symbollocks at 8:37 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you like reading, try studying science. Maybe pick up a quantum physics book? It's just amazing! It definitely restored my faith in humanity to see how far we have come in understanding the world and ourselves, and maybe some faith in the universe in general to see how breathtakingly complicated things are, but how everything works so perfectly together. It really gives you a sense of awe and hope. I don't know if you can apply that to your social life necessarily, but at least you won't be cringing when you watch dumb tv.

Also, there are good science documentaries you may want to watch if you feel you hate most movies. I just watched one about the electron accelerator in Fermilab. Amazing!
posted by shamble at 8:46 AM on October 7, 2008

You could try reading this. It's a bit of an old cliche now, but it contains loads of good advice.
posted by kenchie at 8:47 AM on October 7, 2008

Being a cynic myself, I've always said "a cynic is just a disappointed optimist."

There's a lot wrong with the world, but there's a lot right with it too. There's a lot that makes things looks like we're going to hell, but there are a lot of major world events that have turned out better than I (at least) ever would have hoped.

I find very little joy in most things now a days.

That's a problem. You need to find some new things to take joy in. Maybe a puppy. Maybe banjo lessons.
posted by adamrice at 8:52 AM on October 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

This might sound a little weird, but you mentioned books so I am going to suggest David McCullough's book on John Adams. It really ended up inspiring me to have more faith in the world and appreciate what I have more. Reading how much he suffered for his ideals, how hard he worked to bring about his dream of the American Revolution, and how 'destined' it all seemed to be, might make you question the cynical world a little more. It definitely did for me.
posted by Me, The Snake at 9:03 AM on October 7, 2008

Yeah, a critter helps - you have to care about something outside yourself. I've found, on days when my homeward commute makes me pray (heh) for the bombs to come and wipe out humanity, "Aw, but that would kill little Jack too!" and get over it.
posted by notsnot at 9:06 AM on October 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I find that sometimes having a loved one to sort of dump the cynicism and bad feelings on to or into can be part of the problem. I share your problem to a certain extent, I tend to be overly critical of a lot of things and while that itself didn't bother me (sometimes it helps me fix things), I was bothered about being seen as someone negative, unfun, or not good to be around by the people I cared about. So when I set about trying to just shift the balance of the whole thing I made a few minor changes that sort of made a big difference

- no griping. this means that it's fine to say you had a bad day but turning it into a 20 minute treatise on how people are fucking your world up is against the rules. I usually try to cut these things short with other people by either 1) saying "yeah my day wasn't so great but it's improving now, how was yours?" or 2) not bitching unless I'm actively working to fix the problem

- regarding the second point, really working to be constructuve about problems. Okay my bank sucks (they don't really) and I hated waiting in line and dealing with stupid people and being in a hurry and feeling pressured. Okay what can I do to make that go differently next time? Keep all options on the table... do you need a new bank, a new schedule, a new life, a new job? Generally speaking extreme solutions won't be the right answer, but refusing to consider them can lead to a "trapped" feeling that can be part of the problem with cynicism. I often see it as "damnit everything sucks and THERE'S NOTHING I CAN DO" which I think is why election time is so hard in the US. I know I personally feel that no matter what I do it won't be enough and if my candidate doesn't get elected I will retroactively feel like everything I did flat out wasnt enough. I hate that feeling.

- regarding that last point, realizing that you're not responsible for everything/everyone but you can manage to walk around in a bubble of negativity or one that has a different shade/tone to it. I find that my work -- helping people who know nothing about computers get small tasks done -- tends to please me especially if I focus on THEM and not the system that stuck them in this predicament to begin with. I leave work trying to focus on the interesting stories I heard or the thing I helped someone do not how much Microsoft has fucked technology for people for decades to come (see how that slipped in there?)

- don't wallow. It's easy to get into a griping cycle with gripers. Now I do not mean just fake it til you make it, though that is helpful, but I think some people just sort of get some sort of positive feedback loop from dwelling on the negative. I don't know why. I know when I talk to some people I suddenly hear myself talking about all the picky bullshit that went wrong in my day and just sort of co-grousing about it and I don't want to get into that as some sort of palliative approach to my cynical nature. So, I stop, or try to. I find other things to talk about with my gripey friends or I turn the conversation into listening to them gripe [i don't believe gripers are bad people just that I don't want to always be one]

- don't go overboard - you'll still need to relate bad feelings and share them with your loved ones and your partner, but you can also make them part of the solution. Home from work (or freelancing) you can have a "ten minutes of bad news" time and then move on to something interesting that happened in your day or "how was your day dear?" sorts of things. Keep in mind that your negtive energy affects those who love you and see if you can't place some faith in your bond with them and desire for companionship (if you need to get mercenary) and have that at least help you refocus

- volunteer - people say it all the time but I think it's important. Use your big brain to help other people who don't have your gifts. It can help you feel grateful and/or gracious to whatever allowed you to become the mostly great person that you are. Find a way to get outside your own head, whether it's with servie work, exercise, meditation or social stuff. Computer people can make the computer their whole window into the rest of the world and it's not ultimately a net good thing if you lose the balance between online and offline.

Best of luck. I also think learning the banjo is a great idea.
posted by jessamyn at 9:08 AM on October 7, 2008 [17 favorites]

Being a cynic myself, I've always said "a cynic is just a disappointed optimist."

Agreed. Some people see me as cynical, always complaining, but I tell them this is because I;m really a cock-eyed optimist. I imagine things how they could be, and when they don't make reach that standard, I'm disappointed and want to change them.

Maybe I'm biased, but I see that as a good thing.

What I don't like so much about myself is when I'm negative, which is a different thing from being cynical, imo. When I'm negative, just complaining for its own sake, it's usually because I'm unhappy. If you're unhappy, try to figure out why and remedy it. Plenty of people believe the world is going to shit but still walk around with a big smile on their face. Being happy doesn't require losing your cynical "edge" or becoming Mary Poppins.

Oh and volunteering sounds like a great idea.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:12 AM on October 7, 2008

I've made my cynicism less unattractive to others and less depressing by changing the way I interact with radio, tv, movies, news, etc. In communications lingo, it's pulled instead of pushed media. So I listen to music I want with an iPod, pull whatever TV shows or movies I want off the internet without advertising (legitimate downloads or not). I also started reading more objective journalism (BBC, NPR, etc.) which keep the half-truths and spin that might set me off to a minimum.

Even if I happen to get exposed to some crappy tv show or song through friends or whatever, novelty will trump disgust every time as long as they're always first impressions. Your negativity won't have a chance to get up to speed if you can isolate yourself sufficiently.

I've also reaffirmed my love of archeology, history, and the natural world (similar to what shamble advised). Get Nat. Geographic, Smithsonian, and start watching some PBS. Or whatever else that can keep your interest and make you feel good. It's better to be enthusiastic about something interesting and authentic than getting excited about tearing down the manufactured products and events that only appeal to the herd.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:13 AM on October 7, 2008

The book Feeling Good has CBT exercises for this sort of thing.

Take "I can't even watch TV without spitting nails with all the product placement."

Underlying this is a belief that TV "should" not have product placements. It's as if you believe in an objective morality that TV must not, under any circumstances, have product placements. It's as if you were Christian, and "Thou shalt not have product placements" were the 11th commandment.

The fact is, TV does have product placements. Nobody says you have to like it. But you're only feeling angry because you think it "shouldn't" be that way. Going around insisting that things should be a way that they're not is no way to have a happy life. Just accept that this is the way things are and go on with your life.

(This is of course not to say that you "should" not take action against that sort of thing if you'd like to. Go picket the networks if you want. Start a boycott movement. Restrict yourself to PBS only, and not during pledge drives if you prefer. I'm just addressing the irrational/arational thoughts that cause your useless and self-destructive anger. Being mad at the TV for having product placements is like being mad at the sun for making it hot out.)
posted by callmejay at 9:15 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Check out this blog. Specifically, their "Better All the Time" series.
posted by jluce50 at 9:16 AM on October 7, 2008

I agree that volunteering is a good idea. More generally, try to get involved in your community. Join clubs with like-minded people that share some of your interests. Try to tune out the things that annoy you and focus on the things you are passionate about.

You said you want to "restore some faith in *something* (I'll take humanity since I've pretty much given up on a god)." Check out Unitarian Universalism. Belief in god isn't a requirement, and they try to focus on the good in humanity (like love, kindness, compassion, etc.) It's also a great way to connect to your community.
posted by diogenes at 9:19 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

This may not work for you, but I found reading a comic book called "Owly" (previously on Mefi) has acted as a good cynicism "cough drop" of sorts.
posted by Dr-Baa at 9:26 AM on October 7, 2008

Response by poster: Wow thanks guys.

Dr-Baa, you know what I've had the chance to talk to the Owly guy TWICE in my life and got tripped up before I got around talking to him. From what I've seen, Owly looks great I've just never dove into it. Going to do that.
posted by Hands of Manos at 9:30 AM on October 7, 2008

I went through a period of time where I was utterly disgusted with the world and my reaction to it. I couldn't read the paper, watch tv - even movies where pissing me off. I was reading 2 newspapers and watching several news programs a day (I was self employed at the time). As an experiment, I went on what I called a "news fast." For 1 month, I stayed away from all news sources - I only allowed myself to read the comics page in the newspaper - I stopped watching the news and, by extension, most tv as well. It was a revelation! I found myself talking to my neighbors about something other than current events. I took walks, I got to know people...and I dropped a lot of my cynicism along the way. Cut yourself off from the firehose of negative information, and you might cheer up.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:42 AM on October 7, 2008

Read books about buddhism, preferably by the Dalai Lama. Reading these books puts me in such a compassionate state of mind, almost immediately.
posted by iguanapolitico at 10:45 AM on October 7, 2008

cute overload
The films of Miyazaki.
Community service.
A dog - you'll learn about unconditional love and receive it.
Spend some time with villagers in a Third World country enough to pass rituals and celebrations with them - you'll find they actually love life and family more deeply than do the wealthy.
Spend some time working with refugees - I was humbled by how many of them believed in the American dream.
Louis Armstrong - the man went through miserable poverty in his youth and yet could contrive the most soul piercing sounds.
The Golden Age of Warner Brothers cartoons - often cynical but in a delightfully silly way.
The poetry of e.e. cummings - bursts of shocking glory.

Some of these are disarming innocence. Most of them represent hard fought for hope.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:47 AM on October 7, 2008

For some reason, well some reasons, listening to Anna Deveare Smith's work is a total kick in the ass. For starters, this interview actually made me (stone cold heart) cry the other day.

Here's another great video by her. The bullrider monologue at the end of this is pretty much a cynic buster.

The radio show from the first one, Radio Open Source, I've really grown to love Christopher Lydon in all his obtuseness. He has subjects that are often really real and uplifting at the same time. Listen to this, or this.

I'm just listening to the Bull Rider thing from the TED conference and I'm getting goosebumps. And I have no feelings!
posted by sully75 at 11:00 AM on October 7, 2008

I've noticed that the world seems like a much better place when there are small children around. I'm not sure exactly how you would make use of that information but it's something to think about.
posted by tomcooke at 11:16 AM on October 7, 2008

I solved this problem by falling in love. Suddenly, the world started looking incomparably brighter.
posted by streetdreams at 11:26 AM on October 7, 2008

You could try keeping a gratitude journal. Every night before bed, write down 3-5 things you're grateful for, or that made you happy that day (or, on really bad days, 3 things that didn't completely suck). It sounds pretty hokey, but studies have shown some effectiveness in shifting your point of view to a more positive one.
posted by saturngirl at 11:52 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

One thing that may be painful to do (and I'm not sure if it applies in your case) is you may have to weaken relationships with emotionally toxic (to you) individuals. I had some close friends from way back in the day who were just hardwired to be miserable (I guess their cynicism is a by product of that). They are not bad people, it's just that their mental constitution allows them to exist in such a state with little harm - unfortunately, I am not made of such stern stuff, and after a while everytime I spent a significant amount of time with them, it was always "shields up". This drained a lot of energy I could've spent on other things. After way too long I figured out what was going on and just quietly and slowly drifted towards people who didn't drain me like that. The unfortunate thing is these people were friends from way back in the day. However, I am less cynical than when I was always hanging out with them.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 12:07 PM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

To me, it's odd that you started your post with these examples: I can't even watch TV without spitting nails with all the product placement, I hate most movies.

TV? Movies?

It sounds like you need to delve a little deeper. Even God is too big and abstract. Are you cynical about your marriage? Are you cynical about about your health? Are you cynical about the loyalty of your friends? Are you cynical about your intelligence, talent or looks?

If you're not, then so what? So you don't like most movies and TV shows nowadays: Join the club. So you don't believe in God: that club has a big membership, too.

If you are cynical about the more personal stuff, then ask yourself why you're posting about movies and TV instead of about your wife, your kids (if you have them), your friends or yourself. When it comes to that key stuff, even the word "cynical" sounds to me like avoidance. Describe your real feelings about these elements of your life, without the word "cynicism" (which is usually a sort of cool-cat covering for some more primal feelings). Are you afraid your wife is going to leave you? Are you angry at your kids? Are you ashamed of your lack of intelligence? (I'm not saying any of these things is true about you. I'm just giving examples of the sorts of questions I think you should be asking.)

I'm pretty removed from politics and pop culture, and I don't necessarily advocate that you stick your head in the sand as I do. But I have noticed that people who do submerge themselves in issues and entertainments of the day tend to dwell on them in ways that strike me as weird. They get depressed "because" they're sick of hearing about Paris Hilton. That never rings true to me (and I'm sick of hearing about Paris Hilton). Maybe they're angry because they have to struggle to get by when idiots like Ms. Hilton can just snap their fingers and get whatever they want. So that's anger and jealousy causing the depression, not weariness re Paris Hilton.

Do you get any strokes from being a cynic? Do you think it makes you seem cool or smart? If you really want to be less cynical, you might have to forgo those strokes.

Is cynicism a sort of armor for you? Are you using sarcasm to protect yourself from vulnerability?

Is your cynicism a token in some deeper battle between you and your wife? Sometimes when people go on and on about how much they hate "American Idol," they really mean that they hate (or are angry at) someone in their life who watches "American Idol."

If you really are deeply upset by movies and TV, be proactive. Join Netflex and get an iPod. Stop watching cable. Watch movies by Stanley Kubrick. Listen to music by Beethoven, The Beatles and Miles Davis. The world is full of quality entertainments, but you can't expect them to be handed to you on a plate.

If you've given up God, then embrace some of the philosophies and practices favored by many atheists and agnostics, e.g. skepticism. If you're a skeptic, you will do what you can to rid yourself of magical thinking. That's what your cynicism is: magical thinking. You're exactly like a gambler who believes the dice always roll in his favor (or against him). The truth is that the universe is random. Random doesn't mean good or bad. Random means random. So the world is full of terrible stuff, wonderful stuff and in-between stuff. It's not just full of terrible stuff.

Cynicism is a form of romanticism. You're romanticizing the world just as much as someone who believes that everything is coming up roses. Look at the world for what it is: stinky, gritty, violent, funny, full of flavor, full of love, full of pain, etc.

Finally: product placement? I know it's really hip to be cynical about advertising. But try not to engage in conspiracy theories (magical thinking). Most ads are created by everyday people doing their jobs. I work for an advertising-related company, and there's no grand plan. There's no "they" here who are trying to pull one over on the American public. We're just people who are hired to promote a product. We do what we can to show that product in a positive light. We work under tight deadlines. Sometimes we succeed. Sometime we fail.

Most advertising -- even product placement -- is incredibly above board. Consumers are SO smart about advertising (and so cynical) that it has to be above board. Most product placement is clearly labeled as such. No one is conning anyone. It's almost all clearly labeled sponsorship. (I often hear guys make cynical remarks about how advertisers are conning people. But the guys saying that don't include themselves in the list of "conned" people. Are you cynical about advertising because it compels you to buy all sorts of thing you don't want? If so, simplify your life a bit. If you're cynical about advertising because of the effect it has on other people -- people less sophisticated than you, try to stop being a snob. Try to stop being so condescending.)

Why do people advertise stuff? (a) because they want to show off their wares; (b) because they're using ads as tools to acquire wealth. Well, most animals show off their wares. It's called peacocking. Most animals acquire wealth. It's called gathering/hoarding. Learn some biology and stop thinking of people as special. We're animals. We do what animals do. In addition to peacocking and gathering, many animals (humans included) help one another, play, do useful work and make love.
posted by grumblebee at 1:20 PM on October 7, 2008

Could it be that your cynicism is a projection of negative things you will not/are not willing to look at about yourself onto the world? Probably not the answer you want to hear, I'm sure. Good to consider though. (I'm a fan of cynics though, because one is likely to be a skeptic if they are cynical, and I like me some skeptics.)

On the subject of wallowing, I'm glad j-myn brought it up. One good distinction around wallowing I like to think of is "clean pain" vs. "dirty pain." You are said to be having "clean pain" when it is "tolerating pain for growth" as opposed to "dirty pain" when it is the pain that is about feeling sorry for yourself.

I'm a therapy advocate, but it sounds like you've had a go at that for the time being. My only functional suggestion is to make sure that you engage in some self-care like taking a long walk a few times a week or getting your bubble bath on.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 1:23 PM on October 7, 2008

I must take issue with the suggestion of volunteering (though I saw that you evidently enjoyed doing it in the past). Though it can lead to real fulfillment and uplifting in the temporal sense, I find that, in retrospect, it always makes me MORE cynical about life.

Old folks homes, needle exchange programs, homeless shelters, youth mentoring...all in their own way make you feel good, but their repetitive, cyclical, it-never-seems-to-end qualities make them a real source of my own cynicism.

My suggestion--film. Get yourself a NetFlix account and watch some of the perkier things in life--"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," "Amelie,"--but also the delightfully cynical things as well, like "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Little Miss Sunshine," etc.
posted by Franklin76 at 2:35 PM on October 7, 2008

Response by poster: thanks guys, these were great responses!
posted by Hands of Manos at 4:27 PM on October 7, 2008

Seconding what Calloused Foot said. I think cynicism can spiral out of control when the people you interact with are also cynical.

I have a tendency to veer in this direction but relationships with a few very inspiring people have really changed my life.

1) My grandma, who has had a very hard life but has always remained an optimist, has never been afraid to try new things, meet new people, and always keep learning.

2) The best girl friend I ever had, who I met late in university. She saw the world in possibilities, was always fun to be around, and had a great sense of humour.

3) My little sister, who has a good head on her shoulders, is street-savvy but very open to the world and not afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve.

There were also a few professors along the way who were truly enlightening and inspiring.

Thing of the people you know who make your heart beat faster, and the times you spend with them and you think, this is what living is all about.

We live in a very isolated culture these days. Most time is spent alone among other people. A lot of the interactions we have are filtered through a computer or a telephone. I think a lot of us are lonely.

It's easy to get cynical when you're not connected.

I haven't had a television in many years and have never missed it. It drains a lot of your valuable time and it is also depressing.

Sometimes if I am feeling like nothing is going right in my life I like to read the stories here: http://www.achievement.org/
posted by Flying Squirrel at 3:17 AM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

totally adding this to favourites!

For myself,
while I'd try out all the other solutions that will 'up' your tolerance against being annoyed by things, in the meantime - try and figure out your tolerance, and just, stay under it!

I realised at one point in my life, that above two hours of TV a week (and by TV, I mean, ad-free downloads *whistles), and I no longer got any enjoyment out of it. I was sitting down and watching them with my housemates, but I'd get really critical about the storyline, special effects, direction, and acting. I was technically 'right' about my observations, but really it was just that I was over my limit. 2 hours a week of stupid, I could handle.

The other thing is - anyone with a name referring to 'Manos' must understand the value in appreciating 'bad' things (so bad it's good! We call it 'special-Bad!'). Sometimes I catch myself by realising I'm taking it all waaay too seriously. It's not good! But I can enjoy it as long as I don't expect it to be "Good".

It wasn't til the first episode, second series of 'Heroes' that I realised why I hadn't liked it previously. I'd been taking it for serious, yo.
What was I thinking??? It's SUPPOSED to be slightly ridiculous.
Ohhhhhh... *sigh of relief*

(I'm sure I'll enjoy the other episodes one day, if I ever get around to watching them. ;P
posted by Elysum at 6:38 PM on October 8, 2008

My advice:

Take action to improve things.

AND ... develop a sense of humor.
posted by crystalclear3 at 6:14 PM on March 9, 2009

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