Do you tend to think the worst of people, expecting they’ll probably disappoint you? Have you been hurt in the past, to the point you’ve got your guard up? Do you need help, but are afraid to reach out to others because you figure they’re probably too selfish to bother?
If any of these statements even slightly describes you, you may have a bit of a cynic in you. And that’s not good news. According to a recent study, cynical people are at a higher risk for dementia.
What is Cynicism?
Webster’s defines cynicism as having a cynical character, attitude, or quality. So what is a cynical attitude, exactly?
The official definition: contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives; based on or reflecting a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest; having a sneering disbelief in sincerity or integrity.
Some other examples:
- Your spouse calls to tell you he has to stay late at work. You assume he’s lying and has some other agenda.
- Your friend can’t make your weekend party. You assume he just didn’t want to come in the first place.
- Your co-worker has a great idea, and wants to partner with you to present it to the boss. You assume she just wants to get a leg up and is going to use you to make it happen.
A cynic may have a general lack of faith in people. Perhaps he’s been hurt before, and has learned to keep his expectations low. Whereas being skeptical may mean a person is cautious about a particular situation, being cynical means someone has lost hope in the idea that humankind can improve, or that people can surprise you—in a good way. Cynics always expect the worst, and don’t mind complaining about it, often.
Seniors can be particularly vulnerable to cynicism, as they’ve had a lot of life experiences that may have been disappointing, causing them to lose their hope in the future.
Cynics More at Risk for Dementia
For the study, researchers from the University of Eastern Finland observed about 1,500 people with an average age of 71. They tested them all for dementia, and then gave them a separate test that measured their level of cynicism. This test contained statements like, “Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it,” and “I think most people would lie to get ahead,” and “it is safer to trust nobody.”
Those who mostly agreed with these types of statements were rated as being highly cynical. Both of the tests were standardized tests considered reliable in the scientific world.
Results showed that the people with the highest level of cynical distrust were two-and-a-half times more likely to suffer dementia than those in the lowest cynicism rating. Why would this be?
Cynicism Linked with Higher Risk of Death
Researchers have no clear answers as to what connects cynicism and dementia. But they have seen other indications that cynicism is connected with poor mental health, whereas optimism seems connected with good mental health.
In a 2009 study, for instance, researchers looked at data for over 97,000 women who were free of cancer and cardiovascular disease at the start of the study. They tested optimism and cynicism and found that those who scored highest in optimism had lower rates of cardiovascular disease and total mortality. Those who scored the highest in cynicism had higher rates of cardiovascular disease and total mortality.
Lead study author Hilary Tindle told CNN, “I can tell you from my clinical perspective from treating patients, I am absolutely certain that psychological attitudes can lead people down a road to poor health. The bottom line is that a high degree of anger/hostility/cynicism is not good for health.”
Researchers theorize that cynical people tend to have responses to stress that are more detrimental to their health than other people—faster heart rates, higher blood pressure levels, higher levels of stress hormones, etc. These things can affect the circulatory system, potentially harming the brain.
Lead author of the first study mentioned here, Anna-Maija Tolppanen, stated that the results add to the evidence that “people’s view on life and personality may have an impact on their health.”
Are You Cynical?
How do you know if you may be at risk? Here are a few statements from the Cynical Distrust Scale test. Add zero points if you completely agree, one point if you somewhat agree, two points if you somewhat disagree, and three if you completely disagree.
- Most people inwardly dislike putting themselves out to help other people.
- It is safer to trust nobody.
- I think most people would lie to get ahead.
- Most people will use somewhat unfair means to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.
- Most people make friends because friends are likely to be useful to them.
- No one cares much what happens to you.
- I commonly wonder what hidden reasons another person may have for doing something nice to me.
- Most people are honest chiefly through fear of being caught.
Okay, now total up your score.
A lower score means a more cynical personality.
What can you do about it?
How to Tame Cynicism
Late night talk show host Conan O’Brien was quoted as saying, “All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism, for the record, it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
If your experiences have robbed you of hope and trust in your fellow man, your health could be at risk. Below are some things that may help:
- Recognize cynical thoughts: If you can catch yourself in cynical thinking, you can change those thoughts. Listen to the messages you give yourself.
- Recognize your triggers: Most people are more likely to be cynical when they’re feeling vulnerable, hurt, or angry. Cynicism is a form of deflection—helping us to avoid dealing with the real emotion by focusing outside of ourselves. Have enough compassion for yourself to soothe your hurt or angry emotions first.
- Give others the benefit of the doubt: Focus on the worst in people and that’s likely what you’ll see. “I would never have made him wait; he just doesn’t care about my time or my feelings,” is assuming the worst. Perhaps your companion got caught in traffic, had a run-in with a difficult boss, or truly lost track of time. Can you say you have never done the same?
- Look for the positive: See how many good things you can see in others. Try it for just a day and see what happens—and notice how you feel.
- Use logic: Cynicism comes from a certain viewpoint, one that filters how you see the world. It also typically comes from an emotional place. Try to use logic to find out if what you’re assuming to be true is the most likely or logical conclusion.
Do you have a tendency to be cynical? Do you have cynical people in your life? How do you deal with it?
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Pippa Stephens, “Study suggests link between cynicism and dementia,” BBC, May 29, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27603587.
Hilary A. Tindle, et al., “Optimism, Cynical Hostility, and Incident Coronary Heart Disease and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative,” Circulation, August 25, 2009, 120(8):656-662, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2901870/.
Jen Christensen, “Cynicism linked to greater dementia risk, study says,” CNN, May 29, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/28/health/cynical-dementia/.
Maggie Fox, “Could Being Cynical Cause Dementia?” NBC News, May 28, 2014, http://www.nbcnews.com/health/mental-health/could-being-cynical-cause-dementia-n116326.
Elisa Neuvonen, Minna Rusanen, Alina Solomon, Tiia Ngandu, Tiina Laatikainen, Hilkka Soininen, Miia Kivipelto, and Anna-Maija Tolppanen, “Late-life cynical distrust, risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort,” Neurology, June 17, 2014; 82(24): 2205-2212, http://www.neurology.org/content/82/24/2205.