What's the Difference Between Optimism and Hope?
Both are beneficial, but they affect our life outcomes in different ways.
Posted Feb 26, 2017
“Hope is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man's torment.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
I have always been fascinated and attracted by optimism. On this blog, I have written quite a bit about how beneficial optimism is during times of adversity, why being optimistic is good for our health, and how it helps those who have suffered a health-related setback to recover faster. I have even about written about a simple exercise to boost our optimism and gain some serious health benefits.
Hope, not so much. I just didn’t feel quite the same degree of enthusiasm about hope. Linguistically speaking, the concept of hope seemed to me to be a decidedly inferior concept, like a cocktail of optimism mixed in with a bit of desperation and a dash of wishful thinking.
Reading some psychology papers about hope also reinforced my thinking. In one study conducted by Patricia Bruininks and Bertram Malle, the researchers asked laypeople to define hope, optimism, and other related concepts, and write stories about when they had experienced these states. After conducting their analysis of these texts, the authors concluded:
“Hope is distinct from optimism by being an emotion, representing more important but less likely outcomes, and by affording less personal control… When people do have a high degree of control, they may no longer need to be just hopeful but can be optimistic because the outcome is now attainable."
This quote certainly makes hope seem inferior to optimism. But when we look at the dictionary definitions of these two concepts, there’s quite a bit of overlap. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, optimism is “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something; a tendency to take a favourable or hopeful view.” Hope is the “expectation of something desired; desire combined with expectation.”
These definitions, too, seem to imply that optimism subsumes hope and is the bigger, more encompassing construct.
But interestingly, when I waded into the social psychology scholarly literature, the researchers’ views are quite different. There are literally hundreds of papers on each of these concepts, and many of them study both together. They find that optimism and hope are related to some degree, but clearly distinct from each other.
What is optimism?
Social psychologists see optimism as the individual’s core belief that their future will have good, positive experiences, and won’t have bad, negative ones. More formally, optimism is defined as the degree to which the individual believes that positive outcomes will occur in the future rather than negative outcomes, for themselves, and also for others they know, the economy, the world in general, and so on. Social psychologists see an optimistic disposition as an important part of our personality or natural make-up. Optimism affects how we approach all things in life: our work and professional activities, our romantic relationships, and even our personal finances.
What is hope?
This is how the late Professor C. R. Synder, one of the central figures in hope research, defines hope:
“Hope is a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy), and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals)”
To elaborate on these two aspects of hope—“agency” and “pathways"—researchers tell us that hopeful people engage in more of something called “pathway thinking,” where they are able to come up with lots of different ways in which they can successfully reach a chosen goal. And “agency thinking” is the idea that hopeful people also have greater motivation to use these pathways to initiate and then continue on with the actions that are needed to advance towards those goals.
How are hope and optimism related?
Surprisingly, the two concepts are not that strongly related to each other. One study in the Journal of Positive Psychology found correlations between optimism and agency to be +0.32 and between optimism and pathways to be +0.36. This suggests that people can be very optimistic but only mildly hopeful or vice versa. This same study also found that pathways predicted life satisfaction to a greater degree than optimism did. Why?
“Simply put, the optimistic person believes that somehow—either through luck, the actions of others, or one’s own actions—that his or her future will be successful and fulfilling. The hopeful person, on the other hand, believes specifically in his or her own capability for securing a successful and fulfilling future.”
Another study conducted with 105 Israelis who had been injured in terrorist attacks and their spouses investigated how hope and optimism affected trauma-related symptoms like PTSD, depression, and anxiety for both the survivor of the attack and their spouse. They found that hope and optimism of one spouse worked differently in affecting trauma symptoms of the other spouse. The survivor’s hope had a negative association with the spouse’s experience of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. On the other hand, the spouse’s optimism was negatively associated with the survivor’s trauma experiences. In other words, the survivor’s hope benefited his or her spouse while the spouse’s optimism benefited the survivor. Why? In the authors’ own words:
“The study further distinguishes between hope and optimism as two unique resources that have different associations with symptoms experienced by partners in the marital unit. Conceivably, when spouses observe survivors as exhibiting hope, they may develop stronger faith in the ability of the survivors to deal with the consequences of the trauma, which in turn, may diminish their own symptoms. However, when the survivors see their spouses struggling, the survivors may find it difficult to feel reinforced or encouraged by this interpersonal resource. In contrast, when survivors perceive their spouses as optimistic, the spouses may be conveying that things will eventually turn out well even if the current situation is extremely difficult. Witnessing such faith in positive outcomes on the part of their spouses may be reassuring to the survivors and may reduce their emotional distress.”
A third paper examined how hope and optimism functioned for fans of really poor-quality football teams. These fans were rather pessimistic yet hopeful. Fans of top-tier teams, on the other hand, had similar levels of hope and optimism. The authors concluded that hope is invoked by people when they expect positive outcomes as less likely to happen. According to them:
“Hope is not a mere derivative of expectation or confidence in obtaining one’s hoped for goal, rather, hope may be what individuals turn to when the prospect of obtaining their personally significant desire is unclear. As the invested participants became more confident of success, their hope scores aligned more with likelihood [of winning the game] and followed a similar trajectory to that of optimism. It is at these high levels of likelihood that the more assured top-tier football team supported showed optimism to be indistinct from hope. This suggests that hope’s true and unique nature is in the realm of possibility, when individuals are dealing with greater uncertainty.”
After reading this research, I now have a greater, healthier sense of respect for the concept of hope. It seems clear that to be optimistic in a general way about our lives will serve us well, mentally and physically. But when the chips are down, and when we need a powerful shot of motivation to help us find new ways to reach our goal and push us forward towards its achievement, there is no substitute for hope.