“Beyond Cynical” – Book Review


After reading and reviewing two of Dr. Loretta Breuning’s books – „I, Mammal” and „Meet your Happy Chemicals” – here on Psychology Corner, she invited me to read and review her latest book – „Beyond Cynical” – which has been released in September. After my previous and very enjoyable experience of reading the first two books, I was looking forward to reading „the new one”. Little did I know that this was going to be the best experience so far!

About the Author: Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D. – Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay, and a docent at the Oakland Zoo.

„Beyond Cynical” addresses the main subjects that are also present in Dr. Breuning’s previous books – the mammalian brain and happy chemicals – in a new, more practical way, that is meant to help us transcend our natural proneness to negativity. (If you don’t know what the “Mammalian Brain” and „Happy Chemicals” are, read this article first.

Yes, the mammalian brain feels quite at home generating negative scenarios or threats for us to measure our survival abilities with, but that does not mean we are its prisoners and can’t rewire the way we relate to positive chemical rewards.

The book is divided into ten, very well articulated Chapters, each of them addressing an informational or practical segment that will give us better understanding of the cynicism in our world (both inner and outer) and find out modalities to live with the negativity the world inherently displays at times, rather than making it the focus of our attention, in the detriment of all the beauty and good world has to offer.

When we are in the presence of threats or obstacles (one’s own perception or real), the unhappy chemical called cortisol is triggered and our brain immediately starts scanning for evidence of the threat we now expect. Therefore, we are prone to check for the bad things in the world and consider it all as being „bad”, especially related to elements that hurt us before.

Now, cynicism doesn’t seem to be a good feeling, but the thing is that it does stimulate neurochemicals that make the mammal in us very happy:  Dopamine (in regard to evidence of the mammal’s predictions), Oxytocin (related to social bonds that include interpretations of how “all of us are confronted with this bad world”) and  Serotonin (related to social dominance).

So actually, when we give the world a “bad” significance we actually flood ourselves with cortisol and that is going to make us seek those „happy chemicals” in order to soothe our pain.

This cycle tricks us into believing this is the only way to look at the world and receive chemical rewards. But Dr. Breuning states it’s not and that we can build new connections that can transcend our natural proneness to negativity. Rewiring this kind of cycle can be a great source of well-being, especially considering that there is basically no limit to our capacity to imagine more and more threats. Why not use the extra-neurons in a different way?

In order to understand the book, you need to know the operational definition of „cynicism” and the difference between „cynicism” and „pessimism”.

Cynicism is defined in the book as simply the belief that something is wrong with the world. I would compare it to the cognitive distortion called mental filter which implies that when this automatic thought is triggered, we tend to describe a context (that is made of both good and bad attributes) by mainly considering the bad attributes as defining it. Like having a white canvas with a small black dot on it and describing the canvas as black because of the dot, because it’s not flawless. Obviously, this is not a rational thought and it will change the way we relate to the canvas. We do the same to our relationship with the world (and by “world” I mean everything that is external to us). And why would we choose to live in a bad world than rather in a good one, that sometimes may also include flaws?

 It’s normal to have white and black and greys in our world!

“Beyond Cynical” provides the strategy to transcend negativity through a thought pattern that Dr. Breuning called “PARE” (Acronym for Personal Agency and Realistic Expectations).

“Personal Agency is the awareness that you can meet your real

needs through your own actions. Realistic Expectations are the

knowledge that rewards are unpredictable, and frustration is not

a survival threat.”

In other words, this strategy can help us build an internal locus of control, in opposition to an external locus of control.

The author says that “You can build a PARE habit in six weeks by spending one minute thinking about something good three times a day”. You can find a more in-depth guide to building a PARE habit in the book.

The 10 Chapters of the book also cover topics like why negativity feels so good (and therefore we seek or mentally generate it), what role do happy chemicals (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin) play in this “cynical game”, the six-week training program for creating a beyond-cynical cycle (“Learn to PARE in order to REAP – Realistic Expectations lead to Acting Personally.”), the personal journey of the author in her own “cynical world” and how the new cycle helped her overcome this state (I find that to be a really courageous disclosure!). Also, the last chapters of the book address the “crisis” lense we tend to use when looking at the world (My note: you can compare it to the cognitive distortion called catastrophization)  and they provide examples from books and movies for Personal Agency (Among them, “October Sky”, “The King’s Speech” and “Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution”).

Another interesting touch that I’ve found in the book is the extended “Fight-or-Flight” response pattern to threat, that in Dr. Breuning’s view includes “Freeze and Fawn” as new choices to react to threat and bring the cortisol level down.

 Just like in the other two books  – Dr. Loretta Breuning is using a very personal writing style and description of personal experiences that make the book a very pleasant read and that take us away from a rigid information-based neurochemistry material.

Also, “Beyond Cynical” is a practical book – it includes a six-week training strategy that you can use in order to overcome your negativity. Knowing the underlying neural mechanisms of our behaviors and thoughts can empower the reader in order to be completely convinced of the potential one has for change and that we are not chemically determined and lacking the power to choose our “chemical fate”. We can change our cynical cycle into a happy cycle and Dr. Breuning’s books tell us how.

The concept of Personal Agency (as we find it in the book) or Personal Responsibility (my term of choice) is something we really use in psychotherapeutic work for example or any personal development or growth process, but as I usually tell my clients, the mean or media of the message may be just as important as the message itself, meaning that we all respond differently to the diverse modalities of communication and it’s important to find the one that triggers our attention and helps us understand our functionality and the change we want to generate and it also builds or supports our motivation for the process. Therefore I welcome this new medium to convey the message regarding our functionality and power to change things, now in a neurochemical paradigm.

After reading this book I’m actually considering including segments of its content (complemented with information from “I, Mammal” and “Meet Your Happy Chemicals”) in the psychotherapies I guide, especially when I found new ways to see and explain certain dynamics that occur in therapies – resistance to change for example. Also, I’ve found lots of techniques or theoretical aspects that are already promoted by mainstream psychology/psychotherapy schools, being described from either a new neurochemical perspective or a personal/experiential point of view (for example – the use of physiological indicators in changing a psychological mood).

Due to the fact that the book is filled with informational segments but also tips on how to improve your own functionality, I would’ve also liked to see bibliographical references to support some of this info or give the opportunity to look at some subjects more closely, and maybe even a study to verify the effects of the training for a sample of subjects and their understanding of the book’s content and guiding.

In conclusion, “Beyond Cynical” is a very engaging book and it makes you (re)consider many of your beliefs or thought and/or behavioral patterns. It can also be seen as a neuro, evidence-based cognitive, and behavioral self-help guideline.

I really enjoyed it and I think I’ll be diving through its content now and then to better understand some aspects or to include them in my private practice… or just to give my happy chemicals a boost! 🙂

Hope you’ll enjoy it too!

P.S. This is not a commercial endorsement deal.

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