Cynical people aren’t realistic—they’re just lazy

It’s not all doom and gloom.
It’s not all doom and gloom.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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Another week, another round of depressing headlines.

The year has begun with more political dysfunction, with a three day shutdown of the US government. Yet while the pundits and comedians obsess about the latest twist in the presidential reality show, the opioid public-health crisis continues to spiral out of control, the regulations that keep America’s air and water clean are gutted, and hard-working residents are unceremoniously booted out of the country. Outside of America, new reports show that the world’s richest 1% are now hoovering up 82% of humanity’s newly created wealth, that temperatures in the Arctic regions continue to reach record highs, and that 8 million tons of plastic are now filling the oceans every year.  

If you’re someone who considers themselves to be smart, engaged, and widely read, your response to this kind of news tends to be outrage or cynicism. In a world beset by climate change, environmental degradation, forced migration, political extremism, toxic masculinity, human-rights violations, and economic inequality, it seems like the only sane reaction. At this point, the scale of the challenges we face seems to be matched only by the ineptitude of our political leaders. To the well-informed cynic, it’s obvious that the human race is utterly incapable of getting its shit together.

You know who else thinks like that? Emo teenagers. They naturally default to cynicism because it’s safe. To them, the world is an uncertain, mean place filled with stupid authority figures and meatheads. Instead of changing that world, it’s far easier to retreat to your room, cry softly onto your copy of Nietzche, write some dark poetry, and wallow in the endless night of the human soul.

However, as anyone who’s gone back and read their teenage poetry knows, teenagers aren’t wise. They don’t really understand what’s going on. They haven’t had enough experience. Their decision to adopt an attitude of cynicism may like feel like an act of rebellion; a way of reclaiming agency in a world that has obviously gone mad. But in reality, it’s a decision based on fear, uncertainty, and inexperience.

As an adult, you’ve got no excuse. Cynicism is lazy. It’s the easy way out. If you only expect the worst from society, you never have to worry about being wrong or disappointed. And if you stay cynical for long enough, it leads to what Steven Pinker calls corrosive pessimism. If everything is awful then politicians are always liars, business leaders are always greedy, and we’re all on a collision course with a climate-change time bomb. And what’s the point in trying to do anything about that?

This kind of attitude is bad enough when it happens on an individual level, but at the societal level, it’s toxic. In a time where action is paramount, cynicism creates a paralyzing effect. It causes predatory delay, which is effectively the same as losing. It concedes the fight to those whose power and wealth is tied to planetary destruction and the misery of others. Perhaps more importantly, it ignores the incredible stories of progress that are taking place.

These good news stories don’t get as much airtime as the doomsday ones, but quietly, behind the scenes, they’re changing things for the better. Here, for example, are 10 stories from this year alone that you might not have heard about.

10 pieces of good news in 2018

  1. The United Kingdom smashed almost every record there is for renewable energy in 2017. Wind power alone now generates twice as much electricity as coal.
  2. The annual murder rate in the United States declined by more than 5% in 2017, and in New York, crime rates dropped to their lowest level since the 1950s.
  3. The legalisation of marijuana in US states that border Mexico has led to an 13% reduction in levels of violent crime.
  4. In a year when more people flew to more places than ever, 2017 was the safest ever for airlines. There were no passenger jet crashes anywhere in the world.
  5. A new report showed that the US’s overall cancer death rate has dropped again, the latest indication of steady, long-term progress against the disease,
  6. In 2017, natural disasters caused fewer deaths than almost any year in human history. (Try that one out at your next dinner party.)
  7. The EU has declared war on plastic waste, announcing an urgent clean-up plan that aims to make all packaging on the continent reusable or recyclable by 2030.
  8. The Brazilian government says it will no longer build dams in the Amazon.
  9. Belize has permanently suspended oil operations on the largest reef in the Western hemisphere.
  10. After more than 10 years of debate, 140 nations have just agreed to begin negotiations on a historic “Paris Agreement for the Ocean,” the first-ever international treaty to stop overfishing and protect life in the high seas.

So in 2018, how about cultivating an attitude of optimism instead? Not as a judgement or a reaction to the world around you, but as a personal choice—and a political project.

We’re not talking about naive optimism, that kind that recycles, sings “Kumbaya,” donates a few dollars to a political campaign, and hopes Elon Musk is going to fix all of our problems, no.

  • It’s a compassionate optimism, one that bears witness to the terrible things that are happening on our watch, and doesn’t shy away from the pain.
  • It’s a courageous optimism, one that admits the profound difficulty of the tasks that lie before us, and even the possibility of total failure.
  • It’s an intelligent optimism, informed by incredible advances in science and technology, and inspired by stories of human progress and environmental stewardship.
  • It’s a practical optimism, which takes a long, hard look at everything that’s going on around us and says, “We can do better than this.”
  • and most importantly, it’s a collective optimism, one that recognizes that progress doesn’t happen by magic, but is the result of sustained, committed efforts by millions of people over decades who keep on showing up and insisting that it’s possible to create a vibrant, life-sustaining global society that works for everyone.

Try it out: Make optimism your filter bubble in 2018, and see how it goes.