Home / Opinion / Combatting Cynicism and Hitting a High Note

Combatting Cynicism and Hitting a High Note

It’s easy to become cynical in today’s world.  Just watch the news, or read your Facebook newsfeed, or watch a political debate and the cynicism will begin to creep up on you.  There are numerous things to complain about from government spending to the presidential candidates to bad service at the Olive Garden.  It can be overwhelming, especially with so many media outlets being used for complaints.  Beyond feeling anxious and stressed-out by the many problems swirling around us, cynicism can lead to a litany of negative consequences.  According to research published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, cynicism is linked to increased rates of dementia and heart disease.  Previous research has also shown that cynicism is linked to cancer-related deaths and chronic inflammation, according to Jen Christensen of CNN.  Cynicism, it seems, doesn’t pay.

If that’s not enough to stave off the cynicism, there’s also the fact that cynical people can be kind of a drag.  We all know that Debbie Downer type of person who always has something negative to say and sucks the joy right out of every situation.  So a few months ago, when I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of negativity, I decided to take a turn.  (Full disclosure:  my penchant for sarcasm leaves me with one foot in this hole a lot of the time, but strictly for comedic purposes.  I think.)  I decided to purposely find things to praise and I was going to write a note of praise every day for a year.  The every-day-for-a -year part fell apart quickly (perhaps because I spend a lot of time holed up in my office), but I began writing notes nonetheless.  I didn’t expect anything in return; I simply wanted a more positive outlet rather than complaining about minor incidents (like the fact that I regularly receive Coke instead of Diet Coke at fast food restaurants).  Here are some of the results:

In September, I went to a writing seminar about self-publishing.  I don’t know if I’ll ever self-publish, but it sounded like an interesting topic and I’m always intrigued to learn more about the writing profession.  Plus, the seminar was being held in Indianapolis by one of my favorite mystery authors.  She is a former public school teacher who began self-publishing and made millions in less than five years.  At the seminar, she mentioned that after she gained success with publishing, people came out of the woodwork wanting things from her including advice, connections, and endorsements.  That point really struck me, because quite frankly, I had a lot of questions I would have loved to ask her.  Instead, I decided to write her an email and simply tell her how much I enjoyed the seminar and her books.  Several days later, she wrote me a very encouraging email about the power of writing and her experience at the seminar.  Even though I know that she’s just a regular person too, receiving an email about writing from a New York Times best-selling author was enough to put a spring in my step for the rest of the day.

We all know that Debbie Downer type of person who always has something negative to say and sucks the joy right out of every situation.  So a few months ago, when I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of negativity, I decided to take a turn.

A little while later, it was my older brother’s birthday.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my brother, but we don’t have the kind of relationship in which we lavish praise and words of affirmation on each other.  That’s not really our jam.  In the spirit of this new leaf I’d overturned, I decided to get him one of the fancy birthday cards with a poem that didn’t rhyme.  The card told him that I loved him and that I was glad he was in my life.  When he opened it, he gave me a strange look and said, “What’s with you and Dad and these mushy cards this year?”  Okay.  I kept in mind that the project was simply to show praise and that I didn’t want anything in return.  I understood that the card was probably a bit of a shocker, given that I typically give him a birthday card from the “Awkward Family Photos” line (which is genius, by the way).  A few days later, my brother asked me if I’d seen the card because he was upset that he’d lost it.  I was touched thinking that he wanted to save it because it was so special until he said, “I really want to use the gift card that was inside of it.”  Can’t win ‘em all.

Later, I decided to write a clothing company that I patronize to praise their products.  I received an email back from a customer service representative thanking me for my comments and taking the time to write the company.  I thought about that response for a little while and how difficult it must be for customer service representatives to stay encouraged when they receive so many complaints each day.  Since then, I’ve made a point to acknowledge great service when I can, even if just a few words to a service worker or manager.  A few weeks later, I received an unexpected gift card from that company in the mail.   I’d venture to say these two events were related.

On a similar note, I recently stayed at a hotel that I really enjoyed.  I decided to stop by the front desk to tell them that I had enjoyed my stay and would be back as soon as possible.  The woman at the front desk was visibly taken aback, which made me a little sad.  I had seen a few people complaining at the front desk, but had so many people complained that a compliment was that shocking?  She gave me her card and told me to call her directly when I decided to book my next stay, so that she could give me 15% off the best available rate.  I would have gone back either way, but I’m thankful for the extra courtesy.

A few months ago, I attended a teaching workshop at my place of employment to learn some new techniques for activities into the classroom.  To my surprise, one of the presenters was a colleague in my department.  She gave a very interesting presentation on simulations that she had run in her own classes.  At that point, I was fairly new to the university, so I didn’t know my colleagues very well.  After the workshop, I sent my co-worker an email telling her that she did a nice job at the seminar and that I really enjoyed her presentation.  Later that day, she stopped by my office to talk about the presentation and offer her assistance if I wanted to implement any of the ideas.  It was the first of many in-depth conversations we would have about teaching.  Fast forward a few months later and she is now one of my closest friends from work and we have dinner once per week.

I went into this project of writing notes in order to combat my own cynicism.  I wanted to find things to praise instead of finding reasons to complain.  That’s not to say that there’s not a time and place for a strongly-worded email or a righteous complaint, but there are plenty of things to praise and they are more plentiful than the reasons for complaint.  This experience reminded me that you reap what you sow.  In fact, I feel like what I got back was much greater than what I had invested with the notes.  I didn’t do it for gift cards or discounts or reciprocal praise, but praise is powerful.  In fact, so powerful that last week on my birthday, my older brother gave me a card that said, “You gave me a really nice card for my birthday and I look at it every day.”

About Jennifer Stevens

Jennifer Stevens is a Greencastle native and a DePauw University graduate, who later earned her PhD from Purdue.

Check Also

The Ubben Lecture Series presents "Wired... and Weary?" - a debate between Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia and Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, at Kresge Auditorium, Green Center for the Performing Arts. Photos by Richard Fields.

Town and Gown: A Lack of Transparency

I had family in attendance at Tuesday night’s Jenna Fischer Q&A event at DePauw University. ...

2 comments

  1. Just the reminder I needed today :) thank you

  2. Thank you! And yes, times 100!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *