7 Downsides of Hope
There’s good hope and bad hope. Here’s how it can be harmful and sabotage you.
Posted Jul 25, 2018
Throughout history, hope has been viewed favorably, as virtually essential to our welfare. True, many writers have inveighed against “false hope.” But it’s generally been perceived as a positive, almost essential, motivating force. And in any case, it seems inextricably woven into the fabric of human nature.
Take the famous line from 18th century English poet Alexander Pope: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” And far more recently, writing for Blogspot (10/24/11), a physician in training named Isaac suggests pretty much the same thing—though here the tone is unquestionably cynical toward this abiding universal tendency:
I hate the word 'hope.' It’s a cruel and bitter emotion that won’t leave you alone. In meditation, one is taught to 'let go' of attachments to emotions. I can often do that with anger and grief and anxiety ... but not hope. I despise it because even if I let go, it never lets go of me.
Other writers as well have investigated the “darker side” of hope, elaborating on how it can actually ensnare you, and far more than you might think. So it’s of considerable practical value to explore the often unrecognized problems with such a curiously optimistic—or aspirational—emotion.
In reviewing the literature on this most paradoxical of subjects, I’ve come up with no fewer than seven “downsides” related to hope. All of them merit scrutiny since it’s crucial to distinguish between good hope and bad.
Put simply, not all hope deserves to be regarded as advantageous; an asset. And because its positive facets are much more publicized than its adverse ones, this post will focus on why it’s a good idea to be mindful of how certain kinds of hope—as well as degrees of hope—can wind up defeating you. For, as the acclaimed German philosopher Nietzsche (admittedly) overstated the case: “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”
So, let’s examine the many negatives that have been linked to hope, so we can better grasp the at least partial truth of Nietzsche’s extraordinary pessimism about this expectational feeling.
1. Hope can be an inherently biased ideal.
Overall, it’s better to have a positive, or optimistic, bias than a stubbornly negative one. But ideally, when we make an evaluation, or come to a conclusion, we ought to base our judgment on logic and rationality—rather than on hope, desire, extravagant fantasies, or a relentless longing for change.
If we lived in a utopia, and so were justified in believing that whatever we wanted would inevitably materialize, then we wouldn’t need hope at all. But given the actual world we inhabit, we’re better off avoiding as much biased hope as possible.
Finally, if we want to succeed and feel fulfilled in life, we need to temper the idealism that “grants” us hope with the hard, unalterable facts of reality.
2. Hope can set us up for disappointment and defeat.
The emotion of hope pertains to that which hasn’t yet transpired. So it’s only natural that the more favorable our expectations of the future, the greater will be our disappointment—or disillusionment—when these expectations aren’t met or are irrevocably crushed.
In this sense, it’s much better to consciously restrain our hopes so we can also limit the hurt that a defeat, failure, or setback likely would engender. Hoping may be pleasurable, but hope defeated can be quite painful.
Consequently, it’s useful to keep in mind that anticipating favorable results is not without its hazards and that these risks are best reflected upon in advance.
3. Hope can hamper us from adequately preparing for negative outcomes.
A flexible, forward-looking mindset is almost always preferable to a rigidly fixed one. But there are many situations in which a realistic acceptance of a possibly (or likely) negative outcome is more beneficial than clinging to a hope counter to what is quite probably (if not certainly) going to happen. If the odds of a favorable outcome are little to none, it just makes sense to moderate our perspective so that it’s more in line with real-life eventualities.
If you’re definitively diagnosed with terminal cancer, for example, and resolve to begin making peace with your mortality, accepting the fate that sooner or later awaits you, you’ll thereby optimize the chance of experiencing “a good death.” You’ll say your fond farewells to loved ones, express feelings that till now you’ve kept buried, and tie up whatever loose ends in your existence you can, completing your days in a state of gratitude for everything life offered you—even as you reconcile yourself to what it didn’t. Realistically, the only way to “triumph” over death is to embrace it as an intrinsic, though terminal, aspect of life.
Compare this openness and receptivity in coming to terms with your ultimate demise to the obdurate determination to fight your fate till the bitter end, as though resisting what’s inescapable will assist you in bravely contesting your mortality. That’s simply denying your part in the human condition. And that’s not just grandiose, it’s also foolhardy.
Yet rather than cultivating humility and fortitude in the face of imminent death, many people willfully choose to turn their back on what’s best encountered head-on. To be sure, mounting a monumental fight against one’s ineluctable fate is frequently viewed as courageous. But a much stronger argument could be made that it takes more courage to open-heartedly accept it.
Consider what various writers and researchers have had to say about this reality-refuting aspect of hope:
Michael Schreiner, in his “The Problem With Hope” (11/13/15), notes that “it’s easy to confuse the idea of mindful acceptance with unhealthy states of being like giving up, complacency, or settling for less.”
And Cathal Kelly, in her “Study Finds a Downside to Hope” (11/06/09), reports on a University of Michigan research team that “followed patients who had their colon removed. One group knew the procedure was permanent [while] the second group was told that after a period of healing, their bowels could be reattached. / After a few weeks, both groups were struggling. But six months later, the group that had been permanently disabled showed far more life satisfaction. . . . The group awaiting a reversal procedure remained depressed and unhappy. / “They knew things would get better [concluded the team’s leading investigator] but that made them less satisfied with present circumstances. . . . While usually a good thing, we see that hope has a dark side.”
In this same article, the author goes on to quote Dr. David Casarett, a hospice physician and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics: “Our job as physicians is to point people toward the sort of hope that is achievable.”
And later in this piece, Kelly quotes yet another physician on the matter—the late British physician Robert Buckman: “Even if the news is bad, even in some respects hopeless, it allows you to know what you’re dealing with, and you can cope” [vs., that is, hope].
4. Hope can be like prayer: wishing for something rather than more forcefully working toward it.
Not always, but definitely sometimes, hope inhibits taking necessary, or advisable, action. That is, hoping or praying for something doesn’t in itself imply doing anything about it. Rather, it can keep you in a holding pattern rather than prompting you to act to "achieve" your hopes.
One author suggests that, even more than this, it can be understood as a kind of “moral cowardice” (from Simon Critchley’s “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope,” New York Times, 04/19/14). And whether this sort of hope comes from an enduring belief in a beneficent God or from a more secular position, all too often it leads to passivity—as though if you only wish hard enough for a desired outcome such an affirmative stance alone will maximize its possibility.
But here again, consider the research. An article entitled “The Problem With...Hope” (farnishk, The Earth Blog, 01/24/08), in which the author refers to “a widely cited and carefully controlled study into the relative effects of prayer on post-operative coronary recovery” (see AHJ: American Heart Journal, 2006, 151, 934-942) “found no significant difference in recovery rates between those who received prayer unknowingly and those who did not receive prayer at all”—and also that “the group of patients who knowingly received prayer had a 15-20 percent worse recovery rate than the other two groups.
5. Hope can encourage you to forfeit personal power and control.
Closely related to the above, passively hoping for a desired outcome can be tantamount to relinquishing any responsibility for making it happen. Resignedly, you could be giving yourself the message that you can’t do anything about the situation when, quite possibly, you actually could. Once you give something over to an external force, then, practically, you’re “surrendering” to it.
So far as I could determine, this hypothesis has yet to be researched, but it’s reasonable to assume that the motivation to give one’s all to an upcoming challenge would be diminished by that person’s looking for some deus ex machina to almost magically intervene on their behalf. Too often, hope is susceptible to drift—or degenerate—into mere wishful thinking.
The Earth Blog author cited in #4 succinctly characterizes such hope as a “dereliction of responsibility.” And he notes that this breach in the populace’s handing over to various authorities what, finally, they must each take responsibility for refers not only to religious leaders but also to politicians, heads of corporations, and even environmental organizations. Such a regrettable phenomenon represents for him nothing less than “a mass [my emphasis] dereliction of responsibility.”
And the author closes his critical piece with this wonderfully suggestive quote: “When hope dies, action begins” (from Derrick Jensen, Endgame).
6. Hope can be a tool of self-deception.
False hope is a hope that has no meaningful basis in reality. It’s self-deluding, and eventually it will probably end up sabotaging or defeating you. So you need to ask yourself whether what you’re hoping for makes any legitimate sense, or whether it simply makes you more gullible. For when hope literally runs away with you, your ability to see things clearly—and with just the right degree of skepticism—is seriously undermined.
Consider, for instance, hoping that you’ll win the lottery (after all, someone’s got to win!) or, more generally, standing up to forces far more powerful than you and with the law on their side. Such excessively aspirational hope isn’t only irrational, it’s also imprudent and can at times be dangerous. For it can increase the risk that you’ll get into more trouble than you might already be in. What is it but hope that creates our most wondrous, but farfetched, fantasies. But, enjoyable as they may be, to the extent that they’re over-the-top, it’s wise to maintain them as fantasies only.
7. Hope can set us up for hopelessness.
When hope is defeated, and possibly repeatedly defeated, it’s vulnerable to be replaced by hopelessness—or downright despair (which means the complete absence of hope). And once hope weakens or vanishes, it’s all the harder to take action that could be effective in helping you reach your goals.
On the contrary, if you proceed in your endeavors without hope, independently striving to accomplish whatever objectives you’ve set for yourself, you’ll be taking full responsibility for your future. And regardless of whether you succeed or fail, you’ll be able to attest to—and maybe even congratulate yourself for—all the industry, zeal, and perseverance you put into your attempts. That’s finally far more affirmative than “helplessly” depending on providence to enable you to overcome personal obstacles. Though putting your trust in hope can be extremely tempting, diligently applying yourself to what you most care about is a much more reliable way to prosper in life.
Speaking of the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, Darrell Arnold, Ph.D., discusses how Stoics saw inner peace as linked to eliminating hope, because hopes are eventually dashed. Moreover, the Stoics saw the emotion of anger as originating from
misplaced hopes smash[ing] into unforeseen reality. We get mad, not at every bad thing, but at bad, unexpected things. So we should expect bad things . . . and then we won’t be angry when things go wrong. Wisdom is reaching a state where no expected or unexpected tragedy disturbs our inner peace, so again we do best without hope” (from “Is Hope Bad?” Reason and Meaning, 3/14/17).
Better, that is, to accept the world as unfair and then focus on what, nonetheless, might be possible for you to change.
To conclude, it’s not bad to hope—if, that is, you hope wisely. Still, if you earnestly dedicate yourself to what you want to happen, not really trusting in hope but (self-confidently) in your own tactical and prudent efforts, then hope may become redundant—and even be an impediment. As already indicated, when your hopes are false or unrealistic, you can end up feeling not simply frustrated and disappointed but also angry and resentful . . . and possibly embittered as well.
So, if you wish, go ahead and hope. But do so judiciously.
© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.