Hope is not wishful thinking, optimism, or ‘the power of positive thinking’. There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic, of course. Research shows that optimism is associated with many beneficial outcomes. But that doesn’t mean it’s the same as hope. The Cambridge Dictionary defines optimism as ‘the feeling that in the future good things are more likely to happen than bad things’. The influential psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, who have built careers studying optimism, describe it as the tendency to believe that outcomes in life will generally be positive, favourable or desirable. In other words, optimists simply believe things will work out for the better. The future is bound to be good. For this reason, they’re often said to wear rose-coloured glasses or see the glass as half full – sometimes with cherry soda.
Hope isn’t the same as glass-half-full thinking, however. Hope is applicable even when the glass is only a third full or has nothing in it at all. That’s because true hope isn’t about living in a fantasy world; it’s about living in this one. For instance, it doesn’t deny suffering and pain.
The book Supersurvivors (2014) – co-authored by one of us, David B Feldman, with Lee Daniel Kravetz – profiles 16 trauma and tragedy survivors who went on to do things that made the world a better place. A through-line in their stories was something called ‘grounded hope’. Even though all of these survivors exemplified a hopeful, forward-looking spirit, they were also firmly grounded in the realities of their situations. When James Cameron, the only survivor of a 1930 lynch mob, established the first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Anderson, Indiana, worked to desegregate housing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and ultimately founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum, he wasn’t under any illusion that the world was a wonderful place where things would easily work out fine. In contrast, he understood the staggering resistance he would face, but believed that his efforts might nonetheless help to build a better life for Black Americans. As he wrote in his autobiography A Time of Terror (1982): ‘With faith and a prayer over my lips forever, I was determined to keep my hands on the throttle and my eyes upon the rails.’
People who, like Cameron, fight for important causes aren’t necessarily doing so because they see the world through rose-coloured glasses. Likewise, the scientists who valiantly struggle to end the COVID-19 pandemic or the patients with cancer who choose to undergo treatments with painful side-effects know the road will be hard, but they push forward because they’ve found goals worth keeping their ‘hands on the throttle’ for. That’s the source of their hope. [Continue reading…]