Additional Information for Chapter 4, page 47

Cynicism is not discussed directly in The Compatibility Code, but is a common response to broken relationships and is well worthy of discussion. A common definition of cynicism runs as follows:

A skeptical, scornful or pessimistic attitude; a skeptical, scornful or pessimistic comment or act

Other definitions focus on the absence of belief in the goodness of human nature or of human motivation.

We first address the issue of cynicism in a more generic format, that is, we’re not talking only about cynicism generated by relational difficulties.  A good deal of research has explored both causes and effects of cynicism.  What causes cynicism is not of particular interest to us.  Anyone can find things to be cynical about. What does interest us is the affects of cynicism:  Research has found that a high level of cynicism is associated with:

  • Poorer health
  • Lower productivity in the work place
  • Lower levels of life satisfaction
  • Poorer marital relationships
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Burnout
  • Undermining the stress-buffering potential of social relationships
  • and others—there is probably NO positive consequence of being cynical

One of the most helpful responses to cynicism is a comment attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “I would rather trust people and be disappointed from time to time than live a life of cynicism.”

A modern version is provided by Benny Greenberg: “If you have the ability to positively trust in everything and in everyone and in yourself – it is true that on occasion you will be disappointed . . . but in most cases you will be more than glad you gave your trust. You can go through life expecting nothing and getting nothing – if that makes you feel that you are less disappointed then cool. I would rather be disappointed once in a while and look to the positives of life and all I want than to go through life expecting nothing getting nothing and calling that “never disappointed.”

Sources of Cynicism:

One does not need to look very far to see why cynicism exists.  Events take place every day that are negative, foolish, outrageous, unfair, cruel, unthinkable and innumerable additional items we see in just about every facet of human experience. It takes neither intelligence nor wisdom to see the evil and be negatively influenced by it.

I often present a model in my classes that deals with idealism, realism, cynicism and one’s response to these events. The model does not apply to all, but enough people fit that it is useful to consider:

The model considers three different life phases: 1) The teen years, 2) the child rearing years (roughly 20 – mid 40s), and 3) the post child rearing years

The teen years: The era of naive idealism.  Many teens are noted for their social concern but their concerns typically reveal an absence of understanding of a broader reality.

  • Stop war! (How? Go tell the Arabs and the Jews to be nice to each other?  They’ve been fighting for 3500 years, do you think telling them to be nice is going to solve the problem?)
  • Stop the money-grubbing bankers and the Wall Street sharks!
  • Punish the people who litter our country side!
  • Stop prejudice and discrimination!
  • Animal rights!
  • Help the homeless!
  • Clean water for Asia and Africa’s billions!
  • Stop TV programming’s erosion of our morals!

The child-rearing years: Most people during these years are working so hard to survive that their former idealism barely reaches their radar screen

  • Get a job!
  • Get married
  • Have children
  • Figure out how to raise children
  • Struggle with finances
  • Worry about promotions
  • Try to make a marriage work
  • 50% get divorced during this time—an event that obliterates everything else
  • Figure out custody
  • Deal with feelings of outrage

It is easy to see that people in this phase have little time to worry about whether research animals are being mistreated

Post child-rearing years: The kids grow up and eventually leave home.  This occurs even for divorced people as custody issues slip into the background.  These are often called the “empty nest” years.  It is in these years that many people follow one of two directions: Practical idealism or cynicism.

Practical idealism: Since children don’t take so much time, individuals can devote their efforts to social concerns where they feel they can make the greatest impact.


  • Eric Rajah oversees financing and building wheel chairs for crippled children in Kenya knowing full well that he is never going to get a chair for everyone.
  • Elizabeth and I devote our energies to helping people make better marital choices knowing that many foolish choices and disastrous marriages will continue to occur.
  • Bill Gates with his massive resources is targeting the AIDS epidemic in Africa (among other things) knowing full well that millions will die despite his efforts.
  • Mohandas Gandhi devoted his efforts (along with many others) to stopping British-Indian violence and later Hindu-Muslim violence. He was partially successful.
  • Mother Theresa ministered to the desperately poor in Bombay, India.  There are still millions of desperately poor people in Bombay.

What we consider here are people who devote themselves to the greater good with full awareness that they will not solve the problem completely—at least not in their lifetime.

A quote from the film Stand and Deliver illustrates. This is the story of Bolivian immigrant Jaime Escalante turning the mathematics department of Garfield High School into one of the finest in the country.  Early in his tenure, when some student pulled the fire alarm and all students ran outdoors, the principal said “half of them won’t come back.”  Escalante’s response? “Yes, but half of them will.”

An interesting snippet illustrating when role and actor unite: Edward James Olmos, who played Jaime Escalante in the film Stand and Deliver, was confronted with the hatred and violence that spawned the1993 riots in Los Angeles.  The next morning he was out with shovel and broom beginning to clean up and inviting anyone who wanted to join him.

It illustrates the extraordinarily contrast between cynicism and practical idealism.

Cynicism: This is the attitude that there is so much evil in the world; it’s not worth making efforts to improve it. I have no interest expanding on this idea.  We all know the events in our world that spark cynicism. We all know people whose lives are infected and possessed with cynicism.

We have now addressed cynicism at the global level. Let’s get personal now.  How about people who are in negative life circumstances which prevent (or severely hinder) them from getting on top of things?

This question suggests so many individual circumstances that it is difficult to provide insight that can be broadly applied.  Two suggestions:

1)    Pose your situation on “Ask the Experts” on our website and we will answer as quickly as possible.

2)    Consider the following.

In a study of the world’s highest achievers across many walks of life, it has been shown that 75% of them experienced severely traumatized childhoods or life events.  This includes people with physical difficulties [president Franklin Roosevelt (infantile paralysis), physicist Steven Hawking (Lou Gehrig’s disease), motivational speaker Joni Erickson Tada (quadriplegic)], mental challenges [Winston Churchill (failed several subjects in school), Albert Einstein (thought to be mentally retarded as a child)], emotional challenges [Abraham Maslow (persecuted for his Judaism and abused by his mother) brilliant surgeon Ben Carson and chaplain of the US Senate, Barry Black (both grew up amidst poverty and discrimination)].

This suggests that while we have only limited control over some of life’s circumstances, we have a great deal of control over our response to them.

For people who have experienced so many negative events in their lives that they feel they cannot get on their feet, we move here from the issue of cynicism to “learned helplessness”—a different topic.  We deal with that issue under a different heading.

Final thought:

We know that an attitude of cynicism has an almost uniformly negative effect on most areas of life.  If you are infected, recognize that you have a choice to continue in misery or to make the move to a positive perspective.  The Icon labeled “negative qualities” from Chapter 5 provides some practical suggestions about how to combat cynicism.  Under that icon, look for the subtopic labeled “pessimism”.

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