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How a Cynical Attitude Hurts Your Health and Wealth

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You may think you're just keeping things real, but new research shows a cynical outlook can seriously damage your life. Cynics make less money than their more optimistic counterparts, according to a recent study published by the American Psychological Association. And we're not talking chump change—negative Nancys made an average of $300 less per year (that's like three Lulu tops!). (Bookmark these Money-Saving Tips for Getting Fiscally Fit.)

"Cynical people take more sick days, are less confident in their abilities, and are often more willing to settle for a smaller salary," says Alisa Bash, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, CA. "But the real damage is in their relationships with other people. Because they're less trusting, they don't work as well with others. And when someone gives off negative energy, always complaining, people don't want to be around that."

It's not just your salary and social circle that will suffer from chronic cynicism. Constant complaining can put your health at risk too. A recent study from the University of Minnesota linked cynicism to a greater risk for strokes and heart disease, while a Swedish study found that cynics were more likely to develop dementia. (Read "Why I Got the Alzheimer's Test.") Researchers in both studies said that negative emotions can raise stress hormone levels, increase isolation, and cause people to "give up"—all factors associated with developing diseases.

All of this can be tough to swallow for people who feel they're just cynical by nature. But before you despair, Bash says cynicism is a trait you can change—and it's not as hard as you think. The key is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an exercise that helps you reframe negatives as positives. "When you're expecting the worst, you'll find it, because that's what you're looking for," Bash explains. "But bad things happen to everyone. It's the way you view those things that will determine your happiness."

The first step in nixing negativity is to become aware of how many negative thoughts you actually have, she says. "You need to stop the cycle before it starts by recognizing that these thoughts don't make you happy." (Try these 22 Ways to Improve Your Life in 2 Minutes or Less.) 

Start by writing down any negative thought. For example, "That car splashed me on purpose! People are such jerks. Why does this always happen to me?"

Next, question the proof for that thought. "Most of the time there is no real evidence for your negative beliefs and you're using them as a self-defense mechanism," Bash explains. Look for proof that the driver knew you were there and purposely sprayed you, and proof that you always get splashed whenever a car drives by—things that sound silly when you say them out loud.

Then, question your beliefs behind the cynicism. Do you really believe that all people are jerks or that bad things always happen to you? Jot down some counter-examples of times when people were kind to you or did something good unexpectedly.

Lastly, come up with a new positive statement. For example, "That stinks that I got splashed by that car. They probably just didn't see me. But hey, now I have an excuse to buy a new shirt!" Write the positive thought right next to the negative one. And yes, it's crucial you actually put pen to paper for all of this, Bash adds. "The physical connection between pen, hand, and brain will ingrain your new beliefs at a deeper, subconscious level," Bash says. (See 10 Ways Writing Helps You Heal.)

In addition to using CBT to reframe your thinking, Bash says guided meditations, yoga, and keeping a daily gratitude journal will all help you go from stone-cold cynic to optimist in no time. "For people that really want to change their thinking, it can happen pretty quickly. I've seen huge changes in just 40 days," she adds.

"The world can be a really scary place. So many things feel out of your control, and cynicism is one way to get back that feeling of power," Bash says. "But that can end up making your worst fears come true." Instead, she says to see yourself as a co-creator of your own life, recognizing how much control you really have and look for ways to make positive changes. "You can't stop bad things from happening to you, but you can control how you think about them. Your thoughts shape your reality—a happy life starts with a happy attitude."

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