The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Good Hope and Bad Hope

We need to recognize good hope and bad hope.

In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man's torments.
- Friedrich Nietzsche

I recently reacquainted myself with the Greek myth of Pandora because it sheds light on the always contentious notions of hope and optimism, subjects of previous blog entries by Psychology Today contributors, including me.

Pandora's Box

 

 

So the story goes, Pandora was the first woman. After Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus took revenge on humankind by giving Pandora a jar (sometimes identified as a box) with the warning not to open it. Curiosity overcame her, though, and she opened it, only to unleash all manner of evils upon the world. She quickly closed it, trapping only hope inside, as Zeus intended.

The version of this myth that I learned as a child depicted hope as an unalloyed good that allowed people to this day to overcome evil.

From the viewpoint of an adult, the myth is more complex, and hope especially so. Why would an angry Zeus place hope in the same container as evil things?

How does the old joke go?

Q: What's a nice person like you doing in a place like this?
A: The same thing everyone does in a place like this.

That is, hope must also be evil, especially when kept and embraced. Given all the evil in the world, hoping that things will be different is stupid and thus evil in its effects. As Nietzsche argued, hope prolongs whatever torments us.

So how do these ideas bear on ongoing debates about the pro's and con's of optimism (AKA hope)?

First, let's look at the data, which show - contrary to the myth - that hope and optimism can actually mitigate torment ... literally. People who are dispositionally optimistic are happier and healthier (e.g., Park, Peterson, & Seligman 2004; Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1998). They also avoid so-called "accidents" (e.g., Peterson, Bishop, et al., 2001; Peterson, Seligman, et al., 1998).

And in an interesting experiment, Carla Berg, Rick Snyder, and Nancy Hamilton (2008) used guided imagery in what they called a hope induction. For about 15 minutes, research participants were asked to think of an important goal and to imagine how they might achieve it. A comparison condition asked participants to read a home organization book for 15 minutes. All participants were then asked to immerse their non-dominant hand in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could (up to five miuutes). This is a standard measure of pain tolerance, and it is painful but not harmful. Participants receiving the brief hope induction kept their hand immersed for about 150 seconds, whereas those in the comparison condition kept their hand immersed for about 90 seconds. Hope did not affect reports on how painful the experience was, but it did increase the ability to tolerate it.

Second, let's revisit the point from an earlier blog entry by me that the effects of hope and optimism depend on the specific contents of the hopeful belief. Hoping for things that cannot possibly happen is indeed stupid. We can dub it evil if we are so inclined. But hoping for things that can happen is smart (good), assuming we are motivated by our optimism to act in ways that make the hoped-for thing more likely.

Third, let's remember that the myth of Pandora and its more modern elaborations by Nietzsche and by contemporary critics of positive psychology posit a world densely populated by bad things, with scarce mention of good things. In such a world, hope may well be evil simply because nothing bad can ever change, by definition.

I believe such a world is only hypothetical. Yes, there are evil things in the world, but just as genuine are the good things in the world: like friendship, love, and service. The real world is more complex than a Greek myth or a New York Times op-ed piece, and we should approach it in its full complexity, acknowledging good and evil, and recognizing good hope and bad hope.

At least I hope that we do.

References

Berg, C. J., Snyder. C. R., & Hamilton, N. (2008). The effectiveness of a hope Intervention in coping with cold pressor pain. Journal of Health Psychology, 13, 804-809.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619.

Peterson, C., Bishop, M. P., Fletcher, C. W., Kaplan, M. R., Yesko, E. S., Moon, C. H., Smith, J. S., Michaels, C. E., & Michaels, A. J. (2001). Explanatory style as a risk factor for traumatic mishaps. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 25, 633-649.

Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., & Vaillant, G. E. (1988). Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: A thirty-five year longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 23-27.

Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., Yurko, K. H., Martin, L. R., & Friedman, H. S. (1998). Catastrophizing and untimely death. Psychological Science, 9, 49-52.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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