“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’.
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