How to stop feeling so pessimistic or cynical

Adam from Surmountable
Oct 23, 2022
5 min read
A little bit of optimism can go a long way / iStock

Being pessimistic or cynical can feel good in the moment, but tiring in the long run. Perhaps depressing or even infuriating. Yes, you may be proven right, but is that all there is in life? The opportunity to gloat? You must admit these perspectives rarely lead to better outcomes because if you honestly believe the futility of a situation, how hard are you going to work to improve it or seek out an alternative?

Yet you must have seen something, somewhere, at some point in your life that got better. Wouldn't it be great if that happened more often? If you want to play a role in actually improving a situation for you, your family, your community, or your country, then you have to start with a more positive mindset. Don't confuse this with being naive, when some people falsely believe things are already perfect or genuinely think they will get better on their own.

Sure, you might find yourself in a situation that is unfair. There is no harm in accepting that. But what are you going to do about it? Complain? Go ahead, let off some steam. That can help diffuse your anger. Then what? Complain some more? That is an awfully depressing loop. What if, in spite of everything, you tried to be a little more optimistic again? But how can you stomach positivity after all that has happened?

Realize that you do not have to consider yourself an optimist! Skepticism is more optimistic than pessimism or cynicism and still leads to better outcomes without expecting sunshine. You can retain your suspicion, but at least give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Things could improve. And that might actually be nice, right?

Optimism can get a bad reputation from skeptics, and vice versa, but really they are just two sides of the coin. We need both to make progress. We need someone who believes it is possible to enact change and we need someone who is realistic to be prepared for the hurdles ahead. Only then can we compromise in the middle on pragmatism where the skeptic understands the challenge but the optimist provides hope, leading to a genuine discussion about how to get from point A to point B.

Belief The situation My feelings
Apathy This is meaningless and I do not care I do not care
Nihilism This is meaningless and that sucks I do not believe this matters
Pessimism This is the worst I do not trust anyone
Cynicism This is unfair I do not trust individuals
Skepticism This is unlikely to improve I do not trust the odds
Pragmatism This requires effort I act to influence the outcome
Optimism This can get better I trust the odds
Altruism This will get better I trust individuals
Naivete This is perfect I trust everyone

You may have a default worldview, but these are not fixed behaviors. Traditionally some of these steps may have their own rich individual philosophic traditions or, on the fringes, evolved as modern psychological diagnoses. Yet any event or insight can trigger you to change your attitude and move up or down this spectrum. These beliefs are not arrived at in a vacuum with no concept of other options.

It is perfectly legitimate to have one belief about a particular situation while holding a different belief about something else. In fact, this is not only natural but healthy. Adopting different beliefs for different aspects of our life helps us cope. Feeling entirely optimistic or skeptical about everything could just lead us to feel completely overwhelmed or anxious. We need to believe in altruism at times for society to function or just call bullshit when particular situations no longer warrant sugarcoating the truth. We actually need people at all stages or else we will fall prey to a number of pitfalls.

Belief Benefits Triggers
Apathy Someone needs to say when this is not even worth discussing Can turn to suicide without support or nihilism if one encounters empathy
Nihilism Someone needs to say when this is a waste of time Can turn to apathy after empathy fatigue or pessimism if one finds meaning
Pessimism Someone needs to call bullshit Can turn to nihilism with despair or cynicism if ever proven wrong
Cynicism Someone needs to identify hurdles Can turn to pessimism if betrayed or skepticism if convinced there is a chance
Skepticism Someone needs to be realistic Can turn to cynicism if repeatedly disappointed or pragmatism if inspired
Pragmatism Someone needs to strive for improvement Can turn to skepticism after failure or optimism after success
Optimism Someone needs to think change is possible Can turn to pragmatism if met with hurdles or altruism if never challenged
Altruism Someone needs to have faith in others Can turn to optimism when victimized or naivete when stuck in a bubble
Naivete Someone needs to believe in an ideal we can aspire to Can be exploited without support or turn to altruism if exposed to reality

But really, at the end of the day, doesn't the world have enough pessimists and cynics? You're not naive, but don't succumb to nihilism or apathy either. Wouldn't it be better to be have something that inspires you to get out of bed every morning?

Curious about other stories of optimism? Or how skeptics partnered with optimists to pragmatically change the world to prove the pessimists and cynics wrong? Look no further than the Surmountable book.

Inspiring Stories of Pragmatism

"If you're cynical about these things, then nothing will change. You won't always win, right? We've lost lots of other fights, we've won some; that's always going to happen. But being cynical means you will always lose. Stepping up, speaking out and speaking your mind, giving your opinion on these things, at least gives you a chance. " - Mike Masnick, Page 219

Read how skepticism and optimism work together

Concerned about others who you feel are too nihilistic or apathetic? Take action on mental health. Check out our issue on how our society can destigmatize these discussions to talk more openly about our well-being to maintain our sanity and our psychological challenges in order to overcome our deepest fears, angers, and anxieties.

Surmountable - Destigmatize mental health to end crisis
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