Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.


It's Hip To Be Cynical (And I Refuse To Be Hip)

Posted by Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. on June 14, 2016 at 3:25 AM

Sometimes I worry that the people who read my blog might think I'm woo-woo or airy fairy or "out there." I wonder if people lump me in with other self-helpers who promise eternal happiness in three easy steps. I ponder whether my words reek of false positivity - like a band-aid too small to cover a large wound.

In sitting with these feelings, I realized they come from a deep rooted need that I've always had: the need to belong. When I was younger, I never felt like I belonged in any social group. I was bullied and teased, and I always felt different from my peers.

My blogs help me connect with others. They are one of the ways that I've managed to find my tribe of like-minded people.

But every once in a while a nagging voice pops in. The voice tells me that my words are bullshit. It tells me that no one cares about what I have to say. It tells me that only two people in the world ever read my blogs (my husband and my mom). It tells me that the world is a dark, terrible place, and that my attempts to share love and light are misguided and naive.

So I got to thinking, where does this voice come from?

This voice probably comes from many places. But one idea that came to mind relatively quickly was this: I think it has become hip to be cynical.

Perhaps this is nothing new. Adolescence, for example, is a time when most youth think it's hip to be cynical. In many ways, teens are hard-wired to go against the grain and reject whatever society throws at them.

But I think our cynicism is more pervasive than a short-lived bout of teen angst.

These days, people in their 20s, 30s, 40s (and beyond) seem to think it's cool to be a cynic. Along with other hipster trends like beards, skinny jeans, and thick black-rimmed eyeglasses, my generation seems to enjoy criticizing everything - especially things that are infused with even one atom of positivity. We see humans as motivated purely by self-interest, even when they display kindness, empathy, or altruism. 

Along these lines, it's cool to be an atheist (or agnostic). It's hip to bash people who are into alternative medicine or anti-vaccine or angel readings. Rational thought rules. It's realistic and intelligent to perceive the universe as a physical object that can be perfectly measured by the laws of science. There is no room for mystery, for magic, for the unknown.

I was trained as a research scientist - so trust me when I say that I love science. I think that rigorously evaluating the natural world is a fascinating and worthwhile endeavor. But I also think that my scientific training turned me into a cynic - a situation from which I'm slowly starting to recover.

Personally, I try to blend science and what some might call spirituality by studying topics that fall within the realm of positive psychology. I research topics like yoga and well-being, and I teach an undergraduate positive psychology course. But even here, cynicism abounds.

When teaching my positive psychology course last semester, I was surprised to find that a decent number of my students were wary about the course content. They seemed to have an underlying desire to refute much of what was being taught. On the one hand, this was a great example of critical thinking, a skill that professors often try to foster in students. We don't want our students to be opinion-less robots who take everything we say at face value. And from this perspective, many of my students brought up valid points that led to interesting discussions.

But I couldn't help but wonder: is our desire to teach "good science" and critical thinking creating a generation of cynics? Perhaps we're going too far, to the point that critical thinking is becoming cynical thinking.

While I agree that the world can be a dark, sad, tragic place, and that bad things happen to good people every day, I worry that if we become too cynical, too rational, too focused on the mechanical laws that we believe govern our physical universe, then we will lose our ability to spread hope, to share love, and to dwell in the mystery of both the dark and the light.

I'm not trying to avoid the negativity that exists in our world. I'm not averting my gaze or hiding. I'm here. And I'm trying to remind all of us that there are also many, many good things that happen every day. (Check out the Good News Network for examples). There are kind, generous, loving people in the world. There is magic all around us - it comes in the form of synchronicities, transcendent experiences, and your lover's eyes. There are questions that science simply can't answer (yet).

So if it's hip to be cynical, then I guess I'm a geek. My scientific colleagues might scoff at my words. My friends and family might think I'm a Pollyanna. Readers might bash my blogs.

But perhaps, for the first time in my life, I don't want to belong to the cool crowd.

I want to forge a new path. A path that combines rigorous scientific inquiry with an openness to magic. A science that goes beyond the red tape and white walls of academia to exist within and around us.

A science of the soul.

This soul-science means that sometimes I'll sit at my computer for eight hours straight conducting complex statistical analyses. Other days, I might wander in the park or have a three-hour philosophical conversation or go for a pedicure. Soul-science involves a desire to integrate the physical, material world with what's above (i.e. spirituality) and below (i.e. soul). It means that sometimes I'll focus on the dark. And other times I'll focus on love and light.

You might think I'm naive, or that I've lost my scientific chops, or that I'm avoiding reality. You might think I'm a geek. But that's ok - being cool is overrated anyway :)

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Reply Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
7:10 AM on July 27, 2016 
I agree, Scott! Vulnerability is a key concept that many people are lacking these days. But it's vulnerability that helps bring us closer to each other! Thanks for sharing.
Reply Scott Fleig
4:05 PM on July 26, 2016 
This is an interesting concept Bethany. I work hard on a daily basis to be empathetic and in the words of Steven R. Covey, to first seek to understand, then to be understood. What I find fascinating is that this is OFTEN met with cynicism. My wife and had been attempting to cultivate a friendship over the past couple months and it seemed the more empathy and "care" I tried to show, the more cynical and self-preserving the person got. It finally just broke down completely after being accused of being "selfish" and wanting too much simply by expressing a desire for improved communication. The individual couldn't be vulnerable in the least. I think with cynicism comes an extreme "need" to not allow oneself to be vulnerable.

IMHO, this "cool crowd" is missing a huge part of the human experience.

Thanks for sharing this. :)

Reply Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
8:47 AM on July 5, 2016 
You are so welcome, Katya - all the best to you as you finish your studies!
Reply Katya Pogrebtsova
12:54 PM on June 21, 2016 
I love your website and blog - it is truly inspirational! I am fascinated by how you have combined your personal journey with your research and unique career path that caters to your passions. You are inspiring me on my own journey as I venture through psychology graduate school and dream big about my own career ahead. Thank you for sharing your story:)
Reply Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
8:56 AM on June 16, 2016 
Thank-you for your kind words, Sandra! I'll continue working on calming my inner cynic and sharing my journey :-)
Reply Sandra Derr
8:34 PM on June 15, 2016 
I appreci following you as you forge your own path. I am taking in all that you write and it resonates deeply within. I don't have your gift of expressing my journey but value what it is that you are sharing. Please tell that cynical voice to back off and continue offering us your perspectives. ❤️