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Being Skeptical But Not Cynical or Pessimistic 13

Being Skeptical But Not Cynical or Pessimistic

Ever felt skeptical? Cynical? Or even pessimistical (I wanted it to rhyme)?

Lately, I’ve been discouraged by all the negativity I see on the internet, in the news, and at the gates of every airport in America. It’s amazing how one flight delay can turn a reasonably logical person into a raving maniac who acts as if Mother Nature and the airline industry have purposefully conspired to create specific travel hell just for him or her.

Based on these observations, one could surmise that there is nothing positive in the world. Call me naive but I don’t think it works like that.

It seems that we are often too quick to choose the path of cynicism and pessimism in our daily lives — thus only seeing the negative.

But on the other side of the negativity coin, if I’ve got my metaphoric analogies correct, there can be a positive value in skepticism. Just recently, I was pondering the differences between cynicism, pessimism and skepticism and while they appear similarly negative, I think they have very different impacts.

According to, the following are paraphrased descriptions of each word:

cynicism:  The distrust or the disparaging of the motives of others.
pessimism:  The tendency to see, anticipate or emphasize bad or undesirable outcomes.
skepticism: Having an attitude of doubt or questioning.

The way I see it, a bit of skepticism can actually lead to creativity and humor, but when we spend too much time in cynicism or pessimism, we live in a state of negativity that does not serve us well. Here’s how I think this works.

When we see humor in the world, it is usually due to an incongruence between what we expect and what we see. This incongruence comes from questioning what’s on the surface of the situation. For instance, I recently stayed at a hotel where the bar of soap in the room was square but had a hollow middle. It looked like a large square nut used to tighten a bolt. So, when I started my presentation later that day, I mentioned to the audience that I had spent the entire morning in the hotel’s Lost and Found Department trying to find the middle of my soap. It was funny to me and to them.

Perhaps you had to be there.

When I analyze this situation through the lens of skepticism, I believe my ability to see the humor was based on my questioning what I saw and then comparing it to what I had expected. I saw a “hole” bar of soap instead of a “whole” bar of soap (I know, hilarious). By saying, “What’s wrong with this picture?”, I was able to see the funny and share that view with others. But, the key here is that my questioning did not then lead to a state of pessimism or cynicism. It stopped with the humor.

If, on the other hand, I had viewed the soap through cynical eyes, I would have become distrustful of the hotel staff and perhaps even the suppliers of the soap. I would disparage them and expand that perspective to believe that their motives were self-serving — “The hotel’s only goal is to save money by cheating me out of my right to a full bar of soap.”

And if I had viewed the soap pessimistically, I would expect more bad experiences throughout the day. I would view the world as a dark place and see my encounters with a really slow hotel clerk, a terrible meal, and one more delayed flight as typical. Every bad experience would be met with, “It figures.”

Can you see the difference here?

Skepticism, to me, is a cognitive exercise that allows us to question the norm and see other possibilities. This can lead to new perspectives, creativity and humor. While it may appear negative on the surface, it can actually be a springboard to positive outcomes.

Cynicism and pessimism, however, are negative ways of viewing the world without the positive outcome. People in these states of mind are referred to as “wet blankets,” “sticks in the mud,” or simply “difficult people.” They carry a negative energy that can spread to anyone within reach.

I may be splitting hairs here and I don’t have many hairs left to split, but I think cynicism and pessimism limit what we can get out of life. If we lean towards those views, we’re probably not experiencing the richness of life that’s accessible to us. But, a healthy dose of skepticism can open our eyes to other possibilities.

Here are a couple of ways to recognize and adjust your perspective.

First, in everything you do, be aware of your thought processes. Do you expect people to treat you poorly? Do you anticipate the worst outcomes? Do you see the glass as completely empty? If so, you’ll probably go through life with a negative attitude and it will affect how you engage with people and situations. Instead, practice seeing positive alternatives or expecting good outcomes. And if that’s too hard, then don’t expect anything at all. Life is what it is, and in any given situation, it’s not necessarily right or wrong unless you see it that way.

Second, you can use your skepticism for benefit. When you encounter a challenging situation, ask yourself, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Then, and this is critical, ask yourself how to make the most of it. Perhaps you can see the humor. Perhaps you can see a way to solve a problem. Or perhaps you can simply alter your awareness so that you don’t expect it to be different than it is. Any of these options will lead you away from cynicism and pessimism and towards a different outcome.

It’s good to question things as we go through life. It’s not so good to live under a cloud of distrust and the expectation of undesirable outcomes. But if we can use the question of doubt to see a another angle, we might just find a better answer.


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