How to hope

Pessimism comes naturally to me. Choosing between optimism and pessimism is like asking whether I would rather be disappointed or pleasantly surprised; it just sounds safer to choose the latter. But over time, pessimism takes its toll on my mood and health, and I’ve been advised many times to be more hopeful. Until recently, I’ve had a lot of trouble with how to even go about hoping, so I wanted to share with you what’s worked for me.

When people talk about hoping for something, they usually mean it in one of two senses:

  1. Expressing a desire for a particular outcome, possibly despite evidence to the contrary. Those clouds are looking ominous — I hope it doesn’t rain!
  2. Expecting the desired outcome to come true. No, I’m hopeful I’ll get it all done in time.

If people want me to have more hope, they usually have sense #2 in mind: they think I should have more confidence that things will work out and go well (probably because they have more confidence that things will work out and go well). But when I think about trying to just “expect” better outcomes, multiple objections raise themselves:

  • If I, with all the evidence available to me, don’t have a lot of confidence in things going well, wouldn’t hope in that situation just be… incorrect? Like wishful thinking?
  • If I am unjustifiably optimistic and expect a good outcome anyway, couldn’t that actually backfire and make success less likely? If I’m ignoring all the ways things could go wrong, I won’t put in the work to keep them from happening.
  • Maybe, rather than concretely expecting some particular good thing, people want me to just have vaguely positive feelings about the future. But I can no more choose to feel positive than I can choose to feel happy, or sad, or angry, etc.  I choose my actions, I choose which thoughts to believe, but I don’t choose my feelings.

So whenever people told me to be more hopeful, I’d think “Sure, from your perspective I’d be better off more hopeful, but from mine, it sounds wrong, dangerous, and not necessarily even possible.”

Then I started to notice people talking about hope in a different way. Hope not against the odds, but to improve the odds; hope as a way of helping the hoped-for-thing happen — not magically, but by motivating the work to make it more likely. That kind of hope sounds like a cleaner-burning fuel than pessimism. Eventually, I made a new definition that seems to capture this vision of hope:

Hope is reminding myself of evidence that the desired outcome is still possible.

It doesn’t mean lying to myself about what I can expect. It doesn’t mean ignoring the rest of the evidence either. It doesn’t mean not putting in the work. But it does mean looking for paths to success, noticing what’s already going well, remembering the resources I have, and giving myself something to work toward.

Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

4 thoughts on “How to hope

  1. Have you read Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit? I definitely recommend but one of my personal biggest takeaway is basically the flip side to your conclusion- that people use hopelessness as a reason to justify not working at or trying to make something better, and hope fuels action so hope isn’t a squishy theoretical thing but actually a deeply gritty act of faith. She puts it in a much better and well thought out way than I do though!

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