Can Hope Be Bad?

Ensure that your hopes are not counter-productive.

Posted Mar 22, 2013

hope window
Hope can be a touchy-feely subject, or it can be a subject for scientific investigation. With the rise of positive psychology as a respected academic topic, hope has been studied with more depth than one might have thought possible.

A number of new books have come to my attention. For example, several major figures in the positive psychology field, including my own flow mentor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, have endorsed Making Hope Happen: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others, by Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., Gallup Senior Scientist and University of Kansas business professor. But Deepak Chopra blurbed it, too, so my brain told me to read extra carefully.

Using statistics and anecdotes of real people of all ages from all walks of life, Lopez demonstrates his thesis: that hope is a positive emotional force for creating a desired future. For young people, it turns out that high hope students get better grades, and for businesspeople, this translates into higher productivity (i.e., high hope salespeople sell more than their colleagues).

4 Key Beliefs

How we think about the future matters, says Lopez, and we can choose to make our own future better than our own past. In this way, hope can be compared to optimism, resilience, and agency, old standbys in the field of psychology. Lopez offers four key beliefs that he claims differentiate hope from optimism or wishing in the face of challenge. Here they are, in his words:

  1. The future will be better than the present.
  2. I have the power to make it so.
  3. There are many paths to my goals.
  4. None of them is free of obstacles.

These all seem like good things in which to believe, but personally, I'd fall short on the first two. Surely there is no guarantee that our best efforts will pay off. If this were my book, I'd change #1 to read "The future might be better than the present," and #2 to read "My actions may influence that outcome." However, according to Lopez, my self-labeled realism is a minority view:

The first belief comes naturally to us. The Gallup World Poll shows that the vast majority of people on the planet think their lives will be better in time.

Anyway, the core of the book is that wishing is useless, but combining high expectations with realistic thoughts and making efforts and taking action are most likely to help you reach your goals. And happily, Lopez explains quite well the difference between hoping and simple wishing, and the hazards of foisting the latter onto someone who is struggling with a major illness.

A View from the Ruins

Nikki Stern, the author of Hope in Small Doses (Humanist Press), sought to learn all she could about hope, a state of mind that had eluded her, especially after her husband died on 9/11. As a secular humanist, she would have none of the easy platitudes offered by believers in the supernatural. Rather, what she found were a number of ways to turn hopelessness into a rewarding life, albeit one in which happy days are never guaranteed.

Stern has done a lot of written and spoken commentary on political, social, and cultural issues. In this new book, she manages to combine a personal conversational style with a round-up of the history, philosophy, and current thinking about hope. The book is nicely comprehensive, even at only 145 pages (including notes and images).

Stern explores silly things like the belief that negative energy causes bad things to happen. She discusses how to live with chronic pain and how to think about planning for death without giving in to either despair or irrational hope. "God is beside the point," she writes, while sharing her own road toward workable hope. A very intelligent book.

The Dark Side

Along analogous lines is The Dark Side of Hope: A Psychological Investigation and Cultural Commentary, by Karen Krett, LCSW. Krett, a psychotherapist, explores the adverse side of hope. When an adult hopes for the impossible, genuinely useful steps toward getting much of what he or she wants may be ignored. There's legitimate hope and the kind that keeps you "running in circles."

Krett's style is a bit more academic, yet very readable, featuring numerous examples, anecdotes, and an intriguing discussion of how popular films may mislead viewers about the power of hope. She also offers a deeply psychological road map, one preferably to be used with another person as guide, for those who would transition away from a set of beliefs that have been getting them nowhere.

The Good Life?

Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology was authored by Christopher Peterson, who was one of the founders of the field of positive psychology. Peterson, who was a fellow blogger here, died unexpectedly at age 62 before this compilation of his blog posts came out.

One of his "100 Reflections" is entitled "Good Hope and Bad Hope." Does hope, which Peterson equated with optimism, "prolong whatever torments us," as Nietzsche wrote? Depends, he wrote. If you hope for what cannot possibly happen, that's just stupid (his word). He wrote:

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.

His posthumous book offers lots of smart, nugget-sized insight.

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Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

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