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Why Choose Hope?

The choice of hope over fear is vital.

President Obama continues to urge Americans to choose hope over fear. The choice is vital. Hope and fear are not mere words or facial gestures. They’re deeply felt neurochemical stances toward our current circumstances – stances that alter our outlooks, our actions, as well as the life paths that unfold before us.

Fear closes us down. Our actions become rigid and predictable. Pessimism pervades our self-talk and drives our decisions. Our bleak outlooks bleed into our exchanges with family, friends, and colleagues, eroding any collective sense of safety or security. Fear’s negativity also seeps into our bodies and affects our health. We can feel it eating away at our stomachs, raising our stress hormones, and turning our shoulder and neck muscles into stone.

But what about hope? Do we truly know all that it offers? Can hope lead us out of these dark times?

Hope is not your typical form of positivity. Most positive emotions arise when we feel safe and satiated. Hope is the exception. It comes into play when our circumstances are dire – things are not going well or at least there’s considerable uncertainty about how things will turn out. Hope arises precisely within those moments when fear, hopelessness or despair seem just as likely. Perhaps you’ve just lost your job, your dreams for starting a new business or retiring. Hope, in times like these, is what psychologist Richard Lazarus describes as “fearing the worst but yearning for better.”

Hope literally opens us up. It removes the blinders of fear and despair and allows us to see the big picture. We become creative, unleashing our dreams for the future. This is because deep within the core of hope is the belief that things can change. No matter how awful or uncertain they are at the moment, things can turn out for the better. Possibilities exist. Belief in this better future sustains us. It keeps us from collapsing in despair. It infuses our bodies with the healing rhythms of positivity. It motivates us to tap into our signature capabilities and inventiveness to turn things around. It inspires us to build a better future.

Anthropologist Lionel Tiger casts hope as the evolved antidote to our big human forebrains. Unlike any other earthly creature, we humans can envision our own futures and, in so doing, all possible calamities. Without hope, our dire forecasts might constrain us to motionless despair. Yet with hope, we become energized to do as much as we can to solve our current dilemmas, to make a good life for ourselves and for others.

We face serious challenges in this country, economic and personal, large-scale and intimate. The choice of hope over fear is pivotal for all of us. The more hope we cultivate today, the better equipped we’ll be to survive and thrive in the months and years ahead. We’re going to need the openness of hope to face our challenges with clear eyes and to find the creative solutions that allow us to come through these dark times stronger than ever. So let us be human – let us choose hope and build our better future.

Barbara Fredrickson is the author of Positivity and Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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