03 October 2021 09:48
During the Vietnam War, a US Navy Vice Admiral detained for more than seven years in a North Vietnamese prison noticed a startling trend among his cellmates. Some survived terrible living conditions, others did not. Those who didn’t make it were usually the most optimistic of the group. Later that Vice Admiral, James Stockdale, would tell essayist and economist Jim Collins, “They were the ones who said ‘We’ll be out by Christmas.’ And then Christmas came and went … And Easter came and went. And then it was Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again. And they were dying of heartbreak ”.
I have noticed a less bleak version of this pattern among my acquaintances over the past year and a half as covid-19 slowly morphed from momentary discomfort to a new way of life. Those who had the most difficulty were the optimists who continued to predict a return to normal and then were disappointed in the face of the drag on the pandemic. Some of the people who fared best were utterly pessimistic about the outside world, but rather than minding what was going on outside they focused on what they could do to resist.
There is a word for the belief that you can make things better without distorting reality: it is not optimism, but hope. As Stockdale discovered, and as I also discovered in a less dramatic way during the pandemic, optimism is often not the best way to enhance one’s well-being. Research shows that hope is a far more powerful force. We can all improve in this respect as we try to recover from the pandemic, and benefit from this new capacity for the rest of our lives.
Together but not necessarily
People tend to use the words hope and optimism interchangeably, but this is incorrect. In a 2004 paper published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, two psychologists used survey data to analyze the two concepts. They established that “hope focuses more directly on the personal achievement of specific goals while optimism focuses more broadly on the expected quality of more general future developments.” In other words, optimism is the belief that things will turn out well in the end; hope does not make these kinds of assumptions, but is rather the belief that action can be taken to improve things in one way or another.
Hope involves personal action, and its links to individual success shouldn’t surprise us
Hope and optimism can come together, but not necessarily. One can be desperately optimistic, feel personally helpless, but assume that everything will turn out for the best in the end. Or be hopeful pessimists who make negative predictions about the future but are confident that they can improve things in their own lives and those of others.
Much of the research that has linked optimism to human well-being does not show the distinctions between optimism and hope. By separating the two concepts, however, different levels of benefits emerge. Research published in Psychological Reports has shown that while both optimism and hope lower the chances of getting sick, hope is more effective than optimism in this.
Given the fact that hope involves personal action, its links to individual success shouldn’t surprise us. In a report published in 2013 in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers, who defined hope as “wanting to do something and find a way to do it,” found that employees with high hopes have a 28 percent chance of doing something. more to be successful at work and 44 percent more likely to be in good health and feel good. A multilevel study of students from two universities in the UK found that hope, measured in response to self-assessments such as ‘I pursue my goals energetically’, predicted academic success more than intelligence, personality or even previous successes.
Hope is more than a “welcome presence” for well-being: its absence is disastrous. A 2001 survey conducted by more Mexican and European-American seniors who participated in a survey carried out between 1992 and 1996 showed that 29 percent of those that researchers had classified as “hopeless” based on the answers given to the questionnaires. had died by 1999, a percentage that dropped to 11 percent among hopeful people, even after adjusting for age and reported health.
Some might argue that having hope is mostly a matter of luck, you have to be born into it. This may be partly true of optimism. One study makes it 36 percent dependent on genetics. Whether or not hope has a link to genetics (I have not seen any measurement of this), most philosophical and religious traditions view it as an active choice, if not a commandment. It is even one of the theological virtues of Christianity. It involves voluntary action, not just happy prediction.
The Catholic nun and mystic Teresa of Avila believed that hope comes from will and commitment. As he wrote poetically in the sixteenth century: “Hope, my soul, hope … Think that the more you fight, the more you will feel the love you have for your God and the more one day you will enjoy with your Beloved, in a happiness and in an ecstasy that can never end “. Regardless of religion, we can all learn from Teresa’s statement and commitment to increase our hope for a better life and the future. The steps to take are as follows.
Imagine a better future, and identify the details that make it so.
When you feel a little hopeless, you begin to change your attitude. Let’s say, for example, that the city you live in and love is in trouble because of the homeless problem and an increasing number of your neighbors are finding themselves without a roof over their heads. You could easily conclude that the situation is hopeless, but you can do more for the happiness of your neighbors – and yours – if you imagine a city where fewer people end up on the streets and where everyone has a better quality of life.
Don’t just bask in the glow of a fictional city, make a list of specific items that would be best: for example, cheaper housing, better public policies, a greater focus on substance abuse and mental health.
Imagine taking action
If you stop at the first step, convincing yourself that better days will come, you will have made a commitment to be optimistic, but not yet hopeful. Just imagining a better future will not make it so. But it can help the world when it changes our personal behavior, moving us from protest to action. The second step of this exercise is therefore to imagine your plausible contribution to the realization of a better future, albeit at a micro level.
Continuing with the example above, imagine volunteering at a meal distribution service one day a week, actively asking for better policies from your city administration, or giving greater visibility to the problems of people living in the condition of homelessness. make a permanent home in your community. Avoid the illusion of being invincible saviors. Instead, imagine being able to help a real person, persuade a single politician, or increase the compassion of a single fellow citizen.
Now, armed with hope, you can take the most important step.
Take your grand vision of a better future and your humble ambition to be a part of it in a specific way and act accordingly. Follow your ideas to help out on an interpersonal level. I recommend trying this with two or three people, as your first idea may prove unsustainable or unrealistic.
Your specific action may seem like a futile exercise to you, precisely because it is so small. It is the voice of despair that resounds in your head. Contrast it with the words of Thérèse of Lisieux, the young French nun of the nineteenth century who was a supporter of the “little way”. He stressed that the greatness of an action resides not only in its impact on the world but in the love with which it is carried out. Your little way can change your heart and perhaps infect the hearts of others, especially when they see the effect that the practice of hope and love has on you.
Continuing to mention nuns named Teresa, it was perhaps Mother Teresa who summarized it best of all: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love”.
In 1891 Emily Dickinson wrote that hope is something unsolicited that we can always count on:
‘Hope’ is that feathered thing –
that comes to rest on the soul –
and sing melodies without words –
and it never stops – never –
Dickinson’s sentiment is beautiful, but imprecise. To some lucky souls it happens that optimism arises without being invoked and makes a nest by itself. To have hope, however, we must make a nest ourselves and also spread some tasty birdseed all around. If we strive to attract it and succeed in making it shine in our hearts, there is no sweeter song in this out of tune world.
(Translation by Giusy Muzzopappa)
This article was published on the site of the US monthly The Atlantic.