The hidden costs of cynicism

The hidden costs of cynicism

“If they can get away with it, every employee will act unethically to benefit themselves,” said Zach, a member of a team I advise. In response, his four colleagues at the table rebutted him eloquently. They told compelling stories of benevolence that made all present teary-eyed. It took the rest of the lunch hour, but they eventually cracked his cynicism. The discussion ended with him saying, “Fine. Maybe most people, most of the time aren’t self-centered pigs.”

Zach’s colleagues gave him a gift more valuable than a check made out in the amount of his annual income: A non-cynical mindset. This finding is from a survey data from 125,000 people across 121 countries, as presented in the World Happiness Report 2021. The survey asked how likely respondents thought it was that others would return a lost wallet with all its contents, a common measure of what researchers call “expected benevolence” that is essentially the opposite of cynicism. Believing that people would return the wallet increases happiness by 10%. Because we’re highly sensitized happiness, this is a substantial lift. By comparison, doubling one’s income and overcoming unemployment each boost happiness by less than 5%, and we know these actions feel great! Imagine what double that lift does for our wellbeing. To this point, Zach is the one who told me the above story of his colleagues helping him evolve from cynic to “recovering cynic,” as he put it, and he claims to be “tons calmer and lighter” as the latter.

What if Zach’s original position was correct, though? If people generally don’t return wallets, then the happiness boost resulting from less cynicism is fraudulent. Fortunately, that’s not the case. As I’ve written elsewhere, wallet-dropping experiments find that, although there are geographic variations, 72% of wallets globally are returned intact. (For more evidence that expecting benevolence is warranted, consider watching this or reading this, this or this.)

This isn’t to say that we should leave our wallets out in the open. We still ought to minimize our risk of others taking advantage of us, even if most people wouldn’t. Nevertheless, unless our community is in an extremely aberrant point in history, it’s absurd to have our joy dampened by the belief that we’re in a dog-eat-dog world. And, no, United States society isn’t anywhere nearly unhealthy enough to warrant cynicism. Most Americans return lost wallets… and donate to charity, pay for a stranger’s meal, carry someone’s groceries and conduct all sorts of everyday benevolence.

What’s your view of others? Statistically speaking, you’re likely the old Zach: You see people as overwhelmingly self-serving. Global data show that we underestimate by half the percent of people who return wallets. If you believe others would not return the wallet, greater happiness awaits you on the other side of acknowledging that, in Zach’s words, “most people, most of the time aren’t self-centered pigs.”

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