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What Is Hope and Is There Any?

Dealing with problems like the pandemic and climate change requires hope.

The November announcements about successful vaccines for COVID-19 brought us hope that the horrible pandemic will end in 2021. But what is hope? A new book by Thomas Homer-Dixon provides a rich examination of hope and some grounds for thinking that we can deal with major ongoing problems such as climate change. His account of hope is also relevant to understanding what makes psychotherapy successful.

In my book The Brain and the Meaning of Life, I described hope as the positive feeling that your goals can be accomplished. Like other emotions, hope is a brain process that combines perception of physiological changes such as heart rate with a cognitive appraisal of how well the current and future situations satisfy your goals. When combined representation of goal expectations and bodily changes outcompetes other things you are thinking about, then you become consciously aware that you feel hope.

In his new book Commanding Hope, Homer-Dixon goes beyond this bare neural account with valuable distinctions. The first is between honest hope and false hope. Honest hope uses an appraisal of current situations based on evidence that reasonably estimates that things can improve, for example, that people can stop producing greenhouse gases to slow and stops climate change disasters. False hope ignores the serious physical, political, and technological problems that must be solved to deal with climate changes and blithely assumes that solutions will turn up, or worse denies the seriousness of the problem. Homer-Dixon laudably wants to offer his children and other young people a hope that is honest rather than false. Hope requires a balance between optimism and realism.

The second useful distinction is between hope that and hope to. Hope-that occurs in linguistic expressions such as “I hope that most people will get the COVID-19 vaccine” whereas hope-to can take as its object an action or a feeling, as in “I hope to get the vaccine soon” or “I hope to feel less anxious about getting COVID-19.” Hope-to can always be translated into the linguistic form of hope-that, but this translation ignores the psychological reality that the brain often makes actions and feelings the objects of hope, not just sentences. Similarly, knowing how to do something physical like sports or music is different from knowing that something is the case. My book Natural Philosophy provides a neural account of know-how that would also work for hope-to.

For serious problems such as climate change, hope-to is important because it accentuates and motivates agency, emphasizing that there are actions that people can take to forestall disaster. These range from personal activities of reducing carbon generation to political activities that agitate governments to take the severe steps needed to stop climate change.

The third valuable distinction is between tipping points and leverage points. In complex systems such as climate and society, small changes can lead to major shifts when tipping points are passed. Climate scientists see our planet as rapidly approaching tipping points where disastrous warming will be irreversible. But Homer-Dixon points out that complex systems also sometimes have leverage points where people can intervene in ways that turn small changes into big improvements. He thinks that there is still time to find leverage points to deal with terrifying problems such as climate change, international mobility, and rampant inequality. His book made me feel more hopeful that human aspiration and cooperation might be able to surmount such threats.

Jane Goodall also provides reasons for hope in her MasterClass video. She has grave worries about climate change, animal extinctions, and environmental degradation. But she finds hope in the actions of young people to bring about change, the power of the human brain to come up with solutions to hard problems, the resilience of nature in bouncing back from threats, the power of social media to generate collective efforts for change, and the indomitable human spirit that overcomes great challenges.

Homer-Dixon’s account of hope and change is oriented toward social problems, but it applies equally well to the individual problems for which people consult psychotherapists. A good psychotherapist can work with a client to find hope as an antidote to anxiety and despair. This hope needs to be honest in that it proposes goals and strategies that the client can accomplish with the therapist’s help despite mental and social limitations. The hope that develops is not just abstract hope-that but also hope-to directed at achieving positive actions and feelings. A key accomplishment of a good psychotherapist is identifying leverage points involving both physiological changes and cognitive appraisals that can diminish negative emotions such as fear and sadness.

Disclosure: I collaborated with Homer-Dixon on two articles and he uses my technique of cognitive-affective maps as part of his account of change. But we have never discussed hope.

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