Live Like the Ancient Cynics

Modern cynicism traps you in an unhappy cycle.

The original version will set you free.

Written by Arthur C. Brooks and published in the Atlantic 1/20/2022

Jan Buchzik

How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

There are a growing number of Marxists today. By which I mean followers of Groucho, not Karl. “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” Marx sang in his 1932 film, Horse Feathers. “I don’t know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway.”

What was satire then is ideology today: Cynicism—the belief that people are generally morally bankrupt and behave treacherously in order to maximize self-interest—dominates American culture. Since 1964, the percentage of Americans who say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has fallen 53 points, from 77 to 24 percent. Sentiments about other institutions in society follow similar patterns.

Whether cynicism is more warranted now than ever is yours to decide. But it won’t change the fact that the modern cynical outlook on life is terrible for your well-being. It makes you less healthy, less happy, less successful, and less respected by others.

The problem isn’t cynicism per se; it’s that modern people have lost the original meaning of cynicism. Instead of assuming that everyone and everything sucks, we should all live like the ancient Greek cynics, who rebelled against convention in a search for truth and enlightenment.

The original cynicism was a philosophical movement likely founded by Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, and popularized by Diogenes of Sinope around the fifth century B.C. It was based on a refusal to accept the assumptions and habits that discourage people from questioning conventional dogmas, and thus hold us back from the search for deep wisdom and happiness. Whereas a modern cynic might say, for instance, that the president is an idiot and thus his policies aren’t worth considering, the ancient cynic would examine each policy impartially.

The modern cynic rejects things out of hand (“This is stupid”), while the ancient cynic simply withholds judgment (“This may be right or wrong”). “Modern cynicism [has] come to describe something antithetical to its previous meanings, a psychological state hardened against both moral reflection and intellectual persuasion,” the University of Houston’s David Mazella wrote in The Making of Modern Cynicism.

There were no happiness surveys in Antisthenes’s times, so we can’t compare the ancient cynics’ life satisfaction with that of those around them who did not share their philosophy. We can most definitely conclude, however, that modern cynicism is detrimental. In one 2009 study, researchers examining negative cynical attitudes found that people who scored high in this characteristic on a personality test were roughly five times more likely to suffer from depression later in life. In other words, that smirking 25-year-old is at elevated risk of turning into a depressed 44-year-old.

Modern cynics also suffer poorer health than others. In 1991, researchers studying middle-aged men found that a cynical outlook significantly increased the odds of death from both cancer and heart disease—possibly because the cynics consumed more alcohol and tobacco than the non-cynics. In one 2017 study on middle-aged Finnish men, high cynicism also predicted premature mortality. (Although both of these studies involved only men, nothing suggests that the results are gender-specific.)

Adding insult to injury, people tend not to respect cynics. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 2020, psychologists found that cynical attitudes lead to being treated disrespectfully—possibly because cynics tend to show disrespect to others, leading to a vicious cycle. You won’t be surprised to hear, then, that cynical people also earn less than others. Scholars writing in 2015 found that, even after correcting for gender, education, and age, the least cynical people saw an average monthly increase in income of about $300 over nine years. The most cynical saw no significant income increase at all. The authors explain this pattern by noting that cynics “are more likely to forgo valuable opportunities for cooperation and consequently less likely to reap the benefits of joint efforts and mutual help.” In other words, being a misanthrope is costly.

To improve your well-being, you shouldn’t merely try to avoid cynicism in all its forms. Instead, work to become a true cynic, in its original sense.The Making Of Modern CynicismDAVID MAZELLA,UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA PRESSBUY BOOKWhen you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

The ancient cynics strove to live by a set of principles characterized by mindfulness, detachment from worldly cravings, the radical equality of all people, and healthy living. If this sounds like Christianity or even Buddhism, it should: Greek philosophers, including skeptics, who were contemporaries of the cynics, were probably influenced by Indian traditions when they visited the subcontinent with Alexander the Great, and in the following centuries, the ideas of cynicism and its offshoot stoicism heavily influenced early Christian thought.

To pivot from the modern to the ancient, I recommend focusing each day on several original cynical concepts, none of which condemns the world but all of which lead us to question, and in many cases reject, worldly conventions and practices.

1. Eudaimonia (“satisfaction”)

The ancient cynics knew that lasting satisfaction cannot be derived from a constant struggle for possessions, pleasures, power, or prestige. Happiness can come only from detaching ourselves from the world’s false promises. Make a list of worldly rewards that are pulling at you—such as a luxury item or the admiration of others—and say out loud, “I will not be subjugated by this desire.”

2. Askesis (“discipline”)

We cannot clear our mind of confusion and obfuscation until we stop anesthetizing ourselves, whether it be with drugs and alcohol or idle distractions from real life. Each day, forgo a detrimental substance or habit. Instead of watching television after dinner, go for a walk. Instead of a cocktail, have a glass of water, and consider the refreshment you get from every sip. This discipline promises to strengthen your will and help you adopt routines that improve your happiness.

3. Autarkeia (“self-sufficiency”)

Relying on the world—especially on getting approval from the world—makes equanimity and true freedom impossible. Refuse to accept your craving for the high opinions of others. Think of a way that you habitually seek validation, be it for your looks, your cleverness in school, or your material prosperity. Make a plan to ignore this need completely. Note that this is not a modern-cynical practice of rejecting everything about the world; rather, you will simply be refusing to accept its conventional standards.

4. Kosmopolites (“cosmopolitanism”)

Seeing ourselves as better or worse than others sets us against one another and makes love and friendship difficult, which is self-destructive. This can be as obvious as thinking, I am better than someone else because I was born in this country, or as subtle as feeling slightly superior to a colleague because of my academic affiliation. Start each day by reminding yourself that the world belongs equally to everyone, and resolve not to treat anyone differently because of her status. Act exactly the same with your boss and your barista.

The modern cynic is miserable because he is enchained to the outside world, which oppresses him because it is corrupt. The ancient cynic, by contrast, is happy—not because she thinks the outside world is perfect (it obviously is not) but because she chooses to focus on the integrity of her interior world, over which she has control.

One famous (and perhaps apocryphal) story summarizes the power of this latter way of living. Diogenes, the philosopher who popularized cynicism, was known for showing no bias toward any party or clique, and was thus not well liked by those in power, who could have given him a comfortable life. One day, a philosopher named Aristippus, who was much favored by the royalty, found Diogenes in the task of washing vegetables, a low and disdained food for the ancient Greeks. Far from being ashamed of his paltry diet, Diogenes reminded Aristippus, “If you had learned to eat these vegetables, you would not have been a slave in the palace of a tyrant.”

If you want to be a good cynic and a happier person, learn to eat your vegetables. They may not seem like a sumptuous feast to the people around you, but you’ll find that they nourish you far more than the empty calories of social conformity.


Arthur C. Brooks is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School. He’s the host of the podcast seriesHow to Build a Happy Life and the author of From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.

Chris Wallace Quits Abruptly: Objects to Tucker’s Jan 6 Conspiracy Documentary

Two Fox executives and one anchor so disgusted by Fox’s democracy destruction project they have flown the coop

Written by B Kean and published in

Photo by Suzi Kim on Unsplash

It was a departure long in the making but for Chris Wallace, it was the egregious lies of Tucker Carlson’s incendiary Jan 6th “documentary” that finally broke his back.

Today, at the end of his weekly show, “Fox News Sunday,” Wallace shocked his viewers and the media world by announcing that his last show with Fox has just been viewed.

After 18 years, Wallace tossed in the towel and to pretend it was just because he wanted to see what else is out there, like he hinted, is his asking us to close our eyes to the obvious: Fox News has gone so far off the rails that no one with the smallest shred of credibility can stay there.

Well Respected

Chris Wallace has long been the only journalist at Fox News who respected the roll journalism plays in keeping a democracy healthy. Fox long ago tossed out the duty of oversight the “Fourth Estate,” journalism, suggests.

Fox, as we all know, long ago identified a narrative that would ensure long term profit creation for the “friends and family” of Murdoch’s world. The narrative was a simple one: keep the nation always in a state of fear and panic and prevent any government action that could solve society’s problems. The more they festered, the more they earned.

Wallace never marched to the beat of that narrative and I long have wondered when he would be fired by Fox.

Whether or not he was eased out, or he ran out after some heated conservations over Carlson’s recent 3-part mockumentary, “Patriot Purge,” that truth will eventually find its way to a book by Wallace or someone close to him. We must wait.

There is a sadness, though, or maybe it could be called a feeling of regret that tugs at me. Wallace’s departure will change nothing at Fox, it will only empower the likes of Carlson. The Foxified herd of lost Americans will now look as Wallace as the enemy; someone, they surely will be told by Tucker, “Wallace chose a big fat contract” over the opportunity to “tell the truth at here at Fox.”

Chris Wallace was a regular, and welcome fixture in the homes of millions of Trumpists each Sunday. His voice, even though it might have been articulating a truth that was foreign to the Foxified, was at least in a way blessed by the demons of News Corp. If he’s on Fox and speaking such things, that means there must be some truth, some might have reasoned — not anymore though.

He’s gone and with him that voice of reason is silenced. Wallace was uniquely qualified to call out politicians for their bullshit in ways that other anchors, at both Fox and CNN, weren’t. Now, he joins something called CNN+, a streaming-service, and his voice, while still authoritative, now merely becomes another with which I will inevitably agree over at CNN.

Something inside of me was rooting for him to stay in the den of iniquities so that he could weekly wash away some of the grime of their deceit and vileness. But alas, a man with superman like powers for seeing the real truth in most questions of the day, he could no longer stomach being in the same place as the traitor and “word terrorist,” Tucker Carlson.

According to an expert on terrorism, Carlson’s right wing propaganda film, one that would make Leni Riefenstahl blush, could classically be labeled as a motivational film for American-made, right wing extremists. The mockumentary is giving the dangerously dumb their “Red Dawn” and the Kyle Rittenhouse’s of squirrel-hunting America are probably planning to get “wolverines” tattooed to their arms.

“It is political propaganda that is meant to rally a support base that has shown a willingness to mobilize on the basis of disinformation and lies,” said Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. “That’s how we got Jan. 6 in the first place (Patriot Purge Falsehoods).”

Good Bye, Chris

Wallace could no longer be a part of this hate. He could no longer be a part of the most-watched cable news network which openly dismantles our democracy. Chris Wallace flew the coop and we will miss him.

Wallace is known for his tough, but fair, questioning of both Democratic and Republican politicians. His reputation for grilling members of both parties made him well-respected in journalistic circles, but often irked the Fox News audience which showed immense loyalty to former President Donald Trump. That was especially true when Wallace called out Trump directly, including when he said that the former president “engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on the free press in our history (Wallace Leaving Fox).”

With no one left to rebut the lies and conspiracy theories of Fox News, the dumb and gullible will only become more Foxified. With no one left to irk the listeners with the truth, the Fox narrative will race through the few independent brain cells left, fully soaking them in a brine of anti-democratic hate.

Chris Wallace, thank you for your service to truth — maybe you will reconsider?

Our Founding Fathers foresaw a Trump; but they never foresaw a Rupert Murdoch.

The immovable Republican Party and ‘ink-blot politics’

Written by Domenico Montanero and published by NPR

Photo by Anne Moneymaker/ Getty Images

Supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. It was an effort to stop the procedural certification of a presidential election that Joe Biden won and Trump lost. The mob was egged on by conspiracies and Trump’s lies about that 2020 election.

Those are facts. One year later, and a day after the commemoration on Capitol Hill of that attack, those facts should be indisputable.

And yet millions on the right do dispute them. They’ve been convinced by Trump, reinforced by right-wing media and enabled by Republican elected officials that his meritless lies about a stolen election are somehow true.

They are not. The independent judiciary, with many judges who were appointed by Republicans and Trump himself, as well as audits in state after state, have rejected Trump’s false claims.


President Biden blasts Trump for ‘spreading a web of lies’ in a Jan. 6 speech

How did this happen? A couple of reasons:

First, there’s a problem with how Americans are consuming information

The media landscape is fractured. Confirmation bias is real — if people believe something, there’s likely a link on social media that shows them why they’re right (even when they aren’t).

There’s fertile ground for that landscape, as trust in the media has declined over the last few decades. It hit 32% just before the 2016 election, the lowest ever recorded by Gallup. (As of 2021, it was a similar 36%.)Article continues after sponsor message

The decline in mass media coincides with the advent of Fox News, the conservative cable channel. Fox was created in 1996, about when Gallup found a majority of Americans said they had trust in the media.

Now, there are even more — and even more extreme — voices and outlets on the right, rife with misinformation and disinformation, that are gaining traction.

An NPR/Ipsos poll released this week showed that a majority — 54% — whose primary source of news is Fox News or conservative media believe falsely that there was major voting fraud in the 2020 election.

Second, Republican elected officials have enabled Trump’s lies

When Trump first took office and was still allowed on Twitter, he would write lots of controversial things.

When Republicans in Congress were asked about them, the answer routinely was along the lines of, “I didn’t read the tweet.”

It became something of a joke. Actually, Paul Ryan, who was House speaker at the start of the Trump administration, made the joke himself.

“Every morning, I wake up in my office and scroll Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend that I didn’t see later,” Ryan said in October 2017 at the annual Al Smith Dinner, which includes a political roast.

Six months later, Ryan announced he would not run for reelection.

Ryan and plenty of other Republicans had, during the 2016 presidential campaign, criticized Trump’s views and behavior. But when he won, almost all GOP officials swallowed their criticism.

As Trump went largely unchallenged from his party, he demanded fealty from Republicans, they gave it to him, and his hold on the base grew.

So the path was paved early for Trump’s lies — as outlandish and baseless as they are — to speed down the road to rank-and-file Republicans.

A similar trend has emerged this past year, since Jan. 6, as Republicans have largely avoided criticizing Trump’s role and response to the insurrection.

“In many ways, except for a number of people who’ve emerged as true leaders, like [Rep.] Liz Cheney [R-Wyo.], against their party interest, a lot of this is ink-blot politics,” said Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist and former senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “You see what you want to see on Jan. 6 based on your already-defined political persuasion.”

Supporters take part in a vigil outside a Washington, D.C., detention facility to protest the treatment of prisoners charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.Samuel Corum/Getty Images

McCarthy and McConnell

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy didn’t mince words in his criticism of Trump days after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said plainly, a week after the siege. He had even called Trump on the day of the riot telling him to call off the insurrection.

But instead of keeping up the criticism and casting Trump aside, less than two weeks later, McCarthy flew down to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida residence, and made amends. He released a statement — and now-famous photo — of the two of them, apparently having reconciled.

McCarthy wants to be the next House speaker — and Republicans are favored to take back the House after the 2022 midterm elections.

In May, McCarthy came out against a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. This week, in a letter to his GOP conference, McCarthy derided the “actions of that day” and said the “Capitol should never be compromised and those who broke the law deserve to face legal repercussions and full accountability.”

But there was no mention of Trump and his responsibility. Instead, McCarthy accused Democrats of using Jan. 6 as a “partisan political weapon to further divide our country” and pivoted to criticizing Democrats for being “no closer to answering the central question of how the Capitol was left so unprepared and what must be done to ensure it never happens again.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy watch as a military honor guard carries the flag-draped casket of former Sen. Bob Dole from the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 10, 2021.Greg Nash/AP

McCarthy is just one example. Two weeks after the Jan. 6 attack, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell went right after Trump.

And though McConnell in some instances has kept up his criticism of Trump, drawing attacks from the former president, McConnell’s statement Thursday on the Jan. 6 anniversary mentioned nothing about Trump. Instead, he called Jan. 6 a “dark day,” a “disgraceful scene” — and also criticized Democrats.

“[I]t has been stunning to see some Washington Democrats try to exploit this anniversary to advance partisan policy goals,” he said.

Trump going unchallenged

For Madden, Trump has this hold on the party base because Republican leaders aren’t challenging him en masse.

“I think it’s because he’s directly communicating with the base and is really the only one,” Madden said. “Everyone else is reacting to the Trump factor. … Every force like Trump, where you to try and counter it, you’d have to do so relentlessly. Name one person who’s done that.”

Madden rattled off Republicans who might want to run for president in 2024, people like former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

“No one’s taken him on directly,” Madden said. “They’ve all been reactionary, and they’ve all ceded the rostrum to him.”

Now, multiple surveys show Americans are sharply divided by party about what happened on Jan. 6.

For example, a December NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 9-in-10 Democrats described what happened that day as an insurrection and threat to democracy. Just 10% of Republicans did.

A recent YouGov survey conducted for Bright Line Watch showed that only a quarter of Republicans said they believe Biden is the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney walks with his daughter Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, in the Rotunda at the Capitol on Thursday.Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

During the events commemorating the attack on the Capitol, barely any Republicans showed up. The only ones were Cheney and her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

“I’m deeply disappointed we don’t have better leadership in the Republican Party to restore the Constitution,” the elder Cheney said.

Let’s just pause for a moment. That’s Dick Cheney saying this.

On Thursday night, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for a candlelight vigil to remember what happened a year ago.

But it was missing all those Republicans.

Imagine if all 535 members of Congress had been there and the message it would have sent about democracy’s resilience.