Breaking the negativity cycle with a habit of courage
Cynicism is so pervasive in our culture that it can feel like humanity’s default setting. Negativity and pessimism are the new compassion and virtue. How can you be happy, confident, courageous at a time like this? When late-stage capitalism is gnawing away at the lower and middle classes, when systemic injustice is being outrightly denied, when we are marching rapidly towards irreversible climate damage. Believing that things will get better is decried as ignorant, and the masses swarm. The social norm for those “in the know” seems to praise detached cynicism and renounce hope.
The opposite isn’t any better. Choosing ignorance in the face of obvious problems will not solve those problems. Being so insulated from the plight of others that you can’t, or won’t, comprehend the breadth and depth of an issue is not collaborative— it’s not the moral way to be. Neither is believing that improvement rests on the merits of the individual alone, in the face of clear, contradictory fact.
This creates a dichotomy between the relentlessly cynical and the relentlessly ignorant.
Is there a way to be both aware of the problems facing us, individually and collectively, and maintain hope that things will change? Maintain agency in our day-to-day lives? Promote goodness and kindness instead of polemic strikes against one another?
Yes, but it requires hard work and a habit of courage.
Maintaining social norms has evolutionary pull. If you are part of a group, you will feel the pull to affirm the norms even in the face of what you feel is the right thing to do. Negativity breeds negativity; it is a habit. Once you realize this, it starts to make sense. You see the pull from one negative instance to the next, forming a harmful habit stack that continually loops and changes the way you perceive the world.
The good news is that a positive and helpful version of this habit stack exists: the courage loop. Being brave, even just one time, can give clarity and momentum. Have you ever had the experience of anxiety preceding an event, then a realization afterward that “this wasn’t so bad?” Courage operates the same way. Breaking away from the in-group often leads to a realization that it’s not so bad— especially when you truly believe that you are making the right decision. Not only that, but you can also take comfort in doing the right thing, in bringing positivity to a negative situation.
One of the most effective and longest-lasting ways to infuse life with positivity is to focus on identity change. Do I want to be a cynical person who constantly complains about the way things are? Do I want to blindly believe that things are, and have always been, good? Or, do I want to be a positive realist who works for change? Once you have identified the kind of person you want to be, process and actions are implied. Does someone who is trying to bring about change act like this? Do they dismiss people’s feelings and experiences? Or do they listen with intention and empathy?
This requires study and deliberate practice— no skill exists without study. Studying the nature of goodness and the practices that apply is imperative. Reflecting on the values that matter to you and why they matter. Then acting in a way that raises those values up.
The world needs more positive realists. They are the people who enact real change. External things may be outside of our immediate control, but internal change can radiate outward.
Cynicism is no way forward.
Edited by Abigail McKay Cherry
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