This Easter week’s exploration of character strengths returns to a theme I’ve explored a couple of times already in this space, but one that’s always worth thinking about (especially for a realist like me!): Hope.
According to the VIA Institute on Character, “If Hope is your top strength, you expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something you can control.” Hopeful people “interpret events as external, unstable, and specific,” whereas people who aren’t hopeful “interpret events as internal, stable, and global.” What this means is that the hallmarks of hope are a belief that we can shape the future, a creative ability to see pathways, and the drive — or zest — to work towards a better future. And so, in the words of Ryan M. Niemiec and Robert E. McGrath, “Hope is more than a feel-good emotion. It is an action-oriented strength involving agency, the motivation and confidence that goals can be reached, and also that many effective pathways can be devised in order to get to that desired future” (239).
From this description, we can see that hope is linked to other character traits, like creativity and zest. Research has also found it can be correlated with gratitude and feelings of love. In terms of tangible benefits, hope is strongly correlated with increased life satisfaction and well-being, higher levels of “pleasure, engagement, meaning, and positive and healthy relationships” (Niemiec and McGrath, 240). It is also linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression and increased resiliency when such symptoms do arise. All told, “Hopeful people tend to be healthier, happier, and more successful. Hope leads to greater longevity.”
Hope is an important value within Christianity and is one of the canonical “fruit of the spirit.” For some reflections on this, you can check out my previous posts on a practice designed to increase hope, the hard work of hope when all has fallen around us, and hope within Dark Nights of the Soul. The through line in these posts and in Christian thought on hope generally speaking is that beyond the very practical concerns of psychological hope, hope for Christians is connected deeply to to faith — to trust — in God’s providence, love, and care.
The absence of hope is hopelessness, the sense that things are unlikely to change for the better. “When positive things don’t work out — when your hopeful expectations get burned a few too many times — that can lead not just to disappointment but even to resentment about having hope. For some people, reigning in their sense of hope can be a way of protecting themselves from disappointment, but this can lapse into sustained pessimism or negativity about the future and its possibilities” (Niemiec and McGrath, 244).
This can often lead to learned helplessness, a psychological state wherein our life experiences have taught us that our actions have no impact on outcomes and that, therefore, trying to change our circumstances is a waste of energy. As psychologist Karyn Hall bluntly stated, “When you have no hope, you see any efforts to change your life as futile.”
In its extreme, this can become the opposite of hope: fatalism — not just that things won’t change for the better, but that it’s senseless to try because we are entirely at the mercy of outside forces. In religious circles, this can sometimes manifest itself as a belief that our circumstances are sent by God and so it is sinful to try to change them.
The opposite extreme is known as Pollyannaism — a name drawn from the 1913 children’s novel Pollyanna. This is an extreme bias towards the positive. On the surface this may seem like a good thing — after all optimism has been shown to be strongly linked to well-being. But in Pollyannaism, the optimism is so extreme as to become a rejection of reality and a refusal to accept one’s circumstances. This is a big problem because we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge. As James Baldwin famously put it, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Additionally, Pollyanna is simply annoying to those around us and can cause them to question our judgment. It can, therefore, harm our relationships.
What is needed, then, is not this excessive, extreme hope, but genuine hope, hope that works towards the best outcomes within our circumstances, but never rejects the reality of our circumstances.
How can we cultivate such hope? Here are some practical suggestions:
- Think of a time when you had hope. What were the characteristics that made that season hopeful? How might you cultivate those characteristics now?
- Visualize yourself achieving your goals — what obstacles did you overcome to achieve them, and how?
- Think of a problem you’re facing and make a list of things — no matter how small — you can do to create positive outcomes within it
- The next time you or someone around you expresses pessimism, find two or three hopeful, concrete and realistic comments in return.
- Try the Three Hopeful Things exercise.