Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Contact Us

5 Solid Strategies for Battling Cynicism

5 Solid Strategies for Battling Cynicism

 Email

Eye rolls. Shrugs. Snarky comments. Cynicism seems to be endemic these days: A major study at Michigan State University in 2010 found that people today are much moreFostering a positive atmosphere can be a challenge likely to be “more cynical and less trusting” than in the past, and it seems like our cynicism epidemic has only worsened since then.

The opposite of cynicism is optimism and hope. It isn’t always easy to nurture these positive emotions in families; anyone with teenagers will tell you that fostering a positive atmosphere can be challenging.

Here are five strategies that have worked in our family, helping us to banish cynicism and encouraging us to look at the world in a more cheerful, upbeat manner.

1. “In the Image of G‑d

The Torah recounts that when human beings were first created, we were created B’tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G‑d” (Gen. 1:27). This is a powerful concept: Each one of us reflects a facet of the Divine. Keeping this in mind can have a profound effect on the way we speak about others, reminding us that we all have intrinsic value. Even when we disagree, if we view other people as being created in the image of G‑d, we’re much less likely to mock or belittle them.

Keeping in mind that we’re all made B’tzelem Elokim can help minimize cynicism in another way, too—by boosting our self-esteem. Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany looking into cynicism found that cynics suffer from low self-esteem. Feeling worthless can lead us to lash out at other people, and that, in turn, can make it more difficult to connect with others.

On a practical level, whenever I hear my kids (or myself) start slipping into destructive, negative speech, I remind us that the people we’re speaking about were all created B’tzelem Elokim, and that as such, we all deserve basic courtesy and respect.

2. Zero Tolerance

When my kids were younger, my son thought the word “stupid” was a profanity because it was forbidden to utter in our home. Now that my kids are older, we’ve tried to beWe try to be vigilent about destructive speech vigilant about other forms of destructive speech. Starting to engage in insults and cynical comments quickly escalates; our solution is to try to stop this kind of damaging speech immediately, before it can start to feel normal.

The Jewish calendar provides a yearly reminder of the importance of stopping dangerous behavior before it can take root and spread. Tisha B’Av—the day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem—is observed not on the 10th of the Hebrew month of Av, when the Temple was actually destroyed, but on the ninth of Av, the day that the fire that would soon destroy the Temple was set. Sometimes, the beginning of a negative trait or action is the most dangerous moment, so it’s best if we can stop negativity before it becomes habit and starts to spread its damage in our lives.

3. Judge Others Favorably

The Torah enjoins us to judge other people favorably (Pirkei Avot 1:6). When I first learned of this curious instruction, I wondered how to perform it. After all, I reasoned, I can’t help the way I think, and if I harbor negative suspicions about other people, surely there’s no way to change that? Trying to put this mitzvah into practice, however, had a major effect on my outlook. Someone cut me off in traffic? Maybe he didn’t see me or is a student driver, I’d tell myself. A sales clerk gave me the wrong change? It was most likely an honest mistake, I’d say. Before long, I felt happier and more optimistic.

These days, when our family conversation threatens to take a negative turn, we all try to work on giving people the benefit of the doubt. Often, our determination to judge favorably has been proved right. People who seem rude or unpleasant often truly are merely distracted, busy, tired or coping with difficulties in their own lives, we’ve learned. Recognizing this helps put us in a better frame of mind and banishes cynicism.

4. Get to Know Others

Getting to know other people is a powerful antidote to making sweeping or cynical generalizations about them. Years ago, I received a surprising comment. My daughter and I had made dinner, and delivered it to a family that was in the midst of a medical emergency. As we dropped it off, a relative of the family who was visiting asked if the dinner was kosher. When I replied that it was, she was silent for a few minutes before explaining: “I used to think religious Jews who kept kosher were selfish and wouldn’t help people like us. Maybe I’ll have to reconsider.” Her words startled me, but later on, I thought of a similar experience in my own family.

When my kids didn’t know what to make of a new family who moved to our town years ago (and made a few less-than-flattering remarks about the new kids’ seemingly different ways of doing things), I invited the new family over for dinner. After a few hours of visiting, our kids became fast friends. Sometimes, simply getting to know people who are different from us can reduce cynicism and help us be more open to other people.

5. Look for the Good

The great sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had a number of disciples. He asked them to “go out and discern which is the proper path to which a man should cling.” Each ofWhen we develop our ability to see the best in others, we elevate ourselves his disciples, who were great rabbis in their own right, enumerated different qualities that were crucial to a moral life. One expressed that it is imperative we find a good friend and associate with positive influences on our lives. Another explained that it is crucial to choose a good neighbor and live in upstanding communities that will influence us to live well, too. A third disciple said that cultivating a good heart is important, for that quality leads us to be good. But one disciple, Rabbi Eliezer, gave a puzzling answer. The most central quality to cultivate, he stated, is having a “good eye.”

It was this quality that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai agreed was the most central because, he explained, all the other important character traits that his other disciples wisely enumerated are contained in the ability to see the good in others. When we develop our ability to look at others and see the best in them, we elevate ourselves. Other traits, such as a good heart—and an eagerness to associate with those who are good for us and can be positive role models—will naturally ensue.

My own family tries this experiment on a weekly basis. Every Friday night, my husband asks our kids to name three ways they are grateful to me. Sometimes, I extend this, asking everyone to name three things they like about their dad and each other. Doing this forces us to acknowledge the good in our family; it heads off cynicism and fosters optimism.

We can all extend this exercise further, looking for ways to find the positive in other people or groups, even—and maybe especially—with those with whom we disagree. Doing this helps keep us in a solid frame of mind, and encourages us to be generous with our thoughts, feelings and words.

Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D., is a mother and adjunct professor of political science living in Chicago. She is the author of Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat (Continuum, 2011).
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
3 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Tara Ireland May 25, 2017

Thank You Reply

Susan Levitsky May 25, 2017

Not everyone is created in the image of God. If you can put Hitler in that category then your whole premise is false.

You have no idea how exhausting it is to be with people who won't find fault. I spent a week with my sister who is always looking for the good but completely overlooks things that need to be criticized. It allows people to trample your rights and essentially steal services from you because you refuse to acknowledge that their actions are deliberate. The driver constantly switching from lane to lane, and yes, cutting people off is endangering everyone because he thinks he owns the road. You don't want to be the one mourning a family member because everyone refused to believe his actions were deliberate. Not calling people out for their shortcomings allows society to fall into lawlessness. Looking only for the good may make you feel better but it is not necessarily good for society. Reply

Marcia silverstein Boca Raton Florida May 22, 2017

Healing prayer for Molka bas Ruth Reply