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Hope: how can this touchy-feely stuff help me during the recession?

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“I hope so.”

How many times have you said that, and in the true spirit of England meant “I very much doubt it”, or ,”It had better, or someone must watch out.”

Hope was out of bounds

When I studied psychology, we didn’t study phenomena such as hope.  ‘Behaviour’ was ‘in’.  If we couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist.  If it didn’t respond to the experimenters’ manipulation, it was unimportant.

Character, intent, and morality were out.  Be like a rat, or psychologists wouldn’t pay any attention to you.  (Hmm, good idea perhaps?)


Positive psychology, under the leadership of Martin Seligman, has changed all that.  Now we study virtue.  Are you zestful?  Are you prudent?

And we aren’t going to impose a menu on you either.  We’ll help you label the virtues that are dear to you, and have been dear to you for a long time.

Then we’ll help you build your life around them.


Hope is one of these virtues, but it is a tricky one.  It has a double meaning for positive psychologists as it does in lay language.  Some of us ‘specialize’ in hope as others ‘specialize’ courage, humility or love of beauty. If you want to label your ‘specialities’, you can take the virtues test here.

This is how positive psychologists define hope.

Hope [optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation]
Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about
Hope, optimism, and future-mindedness – You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.

Hope is linked to control

Sadly, this defintion does not distinguish what we can control  from what we cannot.  People who want to control everything are likely to get very frustrated.  Too much hope of this kind is likely to be anything but a strength.

Equally, we know that hope is essential to all of us.  It is not just a ‘speciality’ chosen by some.  When we have hope, we are less stressed, even when conditions, objectively, are bad.  Those of us who design organizations and institutions as part of our professional work know that leaving control in the hands of individuals is the foundation stone of a viable, vital and vibrant collective.

Torturers understand the importance of hope and deliberately take control out of people’s hands. That is the nature of terrorism, whether it is a bomb on the tube, bullying in a school or factory, or threatening to drown someone when we question them for information.  The intent is to break our will by inducing “learned helplessness”, or the collapse of hope.

Hope is not just a virtue; it is as necessary as air

And there we turn the full circle.  If we are living in the shadow of a bully who is intent on removing hope, it is so, so, important not to let them get to you.  They are likely to succeed, at least in part, because we aren’t miracle workers.  But for every glimmer of hope we retain for yourself and others around us, we are winning.  They only win if they remove hope completely.

Positive psychologists often quote a concentration camp survivor who went on to train as a psychiatrist: Vaclev Havel.

“Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

Sometimes life sucks

We have to remember that sometimes life sucks, and sometimes ‘shit happens’.  And sometimes it is big stuff that we didn’t invite and cannot control.  When focus on the randomness of life, we rehearse our sense that life is nonsense.  We deny hope.  And we break our own spirt as surely as a torturer.

But what can we do instead?

How do we nurture hope?

When we start to ‘take inventory’, to ‘start close in’, we express faith that our strengths were given to us to use in the situation we find ourselves in, and that we should use them even if the situation is awful and indeed, because the situation is awful.

Hope is not belief in an end point.  Hope is belief in a beginning point.  Hope is a belief in you and in me.

Come with me

What is your beginning point?  What is the best part of being you? I need to know too.  It strengthens my hope that it will all ‘make sense regardless of the way it turns out’.

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.

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  1. Ned Ned

    I found this little book recently called “Zen and the Art of Happiness”. It focuses around taking on the belief that “every event that befalls me is the best possible event to occur.”

    I woke up this morning for work and there was a thick sheet of ice on the car. My chest hurt from smoking too much because I’ve been stressed. Final class projects due tomorrow and a 12 hour shift to work today. Exhausted from a lack of sleep. My mind screaming that this was all wrong.

    And I just stopped and turned off the car. It was obvious I would be late. And being late is the same as missing a whole day at my job. So I’m staying home, getting some rest, meditation, working on my projects with a relaxed mind. Somewhere in the midst of modern life, I think we are missing a sense of well-being. That the central point of any endeavor is our well-being… not money or fame or success.

    According to the test my strength is a love of learning followed by wisdom. I think that is a good assessment. I like to find new information and give it to others. And I understand that information is useless without action to accompany it.

    Good post… at least for me 😉 How do positive psychologists quantify this information if you are no longer studying behavior? In other words, how do you maintain empiricism?

  2. Jo Jo

    Hi Ned,

    Sorry you missed a day’s work, or pay rather. I’ve also been frazzled – something to do with Pluto or somesuch. The best thing ever is deciding what is not going to get done and finishing off valued projects. Hope that you were able to finish some assignments off.

    I struggle with the Zen idea that everything is ‘meant’. Though I tell people to divorce themselves from circumstances, I can’t quite do it. I don’t want to accept rubbish. My instinct is to kick those flippers and push away. So I have another phrase, “Everything has been a dress rehearsal for this!” It gets me in to the same space.

    I also take umbrage with people who say everything is OK. It bloodly well isn’t if you are in Darfur, Gaza or an inner city and for some many others. But once we accept a situation is c** * , then we can figure out what to do.

    I’ll accept your challenge of answering about empiricism. It is a challenge I think. Let’s see if my thoughts are organized sufficiently to answer.

  3. Ned Ned

    The Zen of Happiness, by the way, is more New Age than it is Zen. Just wanted to prevent any confusion that this is something the Buddha taught.

    I like your statement: everything was dress rehearsal for this.

    When I see myself starting to wallow about something, I remember past instances of wallowing and how that didn’t change the situation. So instead, I do something to change it. Perhaps it won’t make the situation better, but at least it will be different.

    About empiricism, I’m just curious. I know that empiricism was the main motivation for reducing psychology to studying behavior.

  4. Jo Jo

    Dun a whole post! Is it David Adams -not sure. Have a friend who is well versed in Buddism. He directed me to this English philosopher on You Tube.

    PS I am not sure if Skinner just wanted to be empirical. Probably many factors.

    Psychologists still look for the respectability of turn of the century physicists. That is the one before the last!

    Quantum physics and the underlying philosophy is more where it is at. But if we can accept that CERN can cause ‘time travel’, then we can train as psychologists and slip back and forth between behaviourism and existentialism (takes some concentration though – can be giddy-making)!

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