The Power of Gratitude (with a Healthy Dose of Cynicism)

Misanthropic beliefs and attitudes come with risks to our mental health. Can gratitude help us see things another way?

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The phrase “A healthy dose of cynicism” implies that there are good reasons to maintain a level of hostility toward the world. Those who argue for cynicism make the point that distrust can be an effective defense against manipulation. Three years into a pandemic, many people would agree that cynicism has been a useful tool in dealing with the flood of misinformation about COVID-19. 

However, there is a difference between a transitory sense of distrust (the “red flag” that alerts us when something doesn’t feel right) and the scientific definition of cynicism. Research considers cynicism to be a worldview, made up of a set of beliefs about human nature and people’s motivations—namely, that other people can’t be trusted and everyone is out for themselves. 

Cynical Condition 

This kind of Oscar the Grouch–like cynicism has been linked to a long list of physical and mental health issues. One study found that a higher level of cynicism was associated with an increased risk of stroke or transient ischemic attack (a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain) in middle-aged and older adults, while another study in a similar population drew a correlation between cynical hostility and dementia. There have also been findings about the harmful effects of cynicism on physical activity, mortality, and its close ties with depression

If cynicism is a deep-seated mistrust of our fellow humans, then gratitude is a deep-seated knowing that there is goodness in the world.

The opposite of cynicism is not gratitude, but it appears that gratitude is a gateway to positive emotions such as joy, excitement, and optimism—all of which counteract cynicism. The research on gratitude and improved health is burgeoning, and there is evidence that gratitude interventions improve sleep quality, reduce the body’s inflammatory response, and lower blood pressure. While further studies are needed to confirm these findings, experts in the field agree that gratitude appears to play an important role in people’s overall sense of well-being.

Our well-being relies greatly on our social relationships, with gratitude as the “social glue” that inspires people to be more kind, generous, and forgiving. If cynicism is a deep-seated mistrust of our fellow humans, then gratitude is a deep-seated knowing that there is goodness in the world.

An Antidote to Cynicism?

One common myth about gratitude is that it leads us to become naïve or gullible. In truth, practicing gratitude won’t protect us from getting hurt by others, but it can act as an illuminator for the people and things that are good for us. Robert Emmons, who has devoted his career to studying gratitude, writes that “Practicing gratitude magnifies positive feelings more than it reduces negative feelings.” 

If you’ve ever taken a magnifying glass to a patch of moss or a suburban lawn, you may have delighted in your discovery of these tiny worlds of life operating under our feet. Gratitude works in a similar way, by magnifying the good that’s sometimes hidden in the world around us—and once you see it, it becomes easier to identify. 

While it’s perfectly normal and healthy to experience passing moments of cynicism, science agrees that opening yourself up to the possibility of goodness in other people may be healthier for you in the long run.

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  • Jane Anne Staw
  • September 20, 2022