The Habit of Hope

For most of man’s existence on Earth, the universe has been anything but benevolent. Famines, floods, and earthquakes have destroyed whole populations. The plague ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages. Even in the nineteenth century, two out of three people died as children. On the frontier, starvation was not that uncommon after a long winter or a drought.And these horrors do not even begin to take account of man’s inhumanity to man.What is my point? That for most of man’s existence, he has had only a tenuous power over his life, physically and politically. Life was full of uncertainties and anxieties, which helped to give rise to religions promising happiness in this life or an afterlife. Religion gave people a much-needed sense of hope.

Power versus a Sense of Power

That largely unchanging situation underwent a revolution after the Renaissance. The rediscovery of the power of reason and the development of technology enabled men to bring about a vast expansion in their power over their lives, and they came to expect that the future would see still further increases. And, in fact that is what happened. In the twentieth century, medical technology lengthened the average life-span from four decades to seven. Today, in the free world, men are able to control much of the impact of natural disasters. From an economic and technological perspective, no one in a capitalist society need go hungry.At the same time, however, the Enlightenment took away religion’s assurance that a benevolent force would look over men in times of helplessness and hopelessness and would compensate them hereafter for their sufferings. We became responsible for our own happiness

What can we do to sustain a rational optimism?

And what has been the upshot? Evidence indicates that for many, man’s increase in power has not brought a sense of efficacy. If we consider those women born before World War I, those born around 1925, and those born in the Fifties (the Baby Boomers), we find that there is a quadrupling in depression from the first group to the second, and a doubling from the second to the third. Why should this be, if people have continued to acquire more control than ever over their lives in the twentieth century?

One reason, I suspect, is the nihilism of modern philosophy: the lack of answers about the meaning of life and human purposes; the moral relativity that says it doesn’t matter what you do; the draining away of the sense that human beings are capable and worthy. I think these ideas have infiltrated the culture to such an extent that they are affecting the psychological outlook of a lot of people. In this respect, you may personally have experienced Ayn Rand‘s ideas as a great antidote. Rand tell us that life has meaning and purpose and that living as a human being can be a noble activity. Through the story of The FountainheadRand gives us one long argument against Dominique’s belief in the triumph of power-lust and toadyism over the true, the rational, and the beautiful.

Learned Optimism

Rand’s ideas, such as the efficacy of reason and the successful nature of life, certainly help us to be hopeful about our lives. But is there a specific technology of the soul that can increase our hopefulness and thus our motivation and our success? If so, how can we implement it in our daily lives? Are there specific psychological processes that we can adopt? Are there methods we can apply? And are there ways we can make those methods more permanent in our minds? I think there are, and I think the research of psychologist Martin Seligman, at University of Pennsylvania, helps provide some of that technology.

Seligman did some interesting experiments back in the seventies on what he called “learned helplessness.” He worked with two sets of dogs. One he put in a cage that they could not get out of. The other he put in a cage that they could jump out of. And then he shocked both of these sets of dogs. The ones that could escape their cages did so, and got away from the shocks. The ones that could do nothing to escape the shock became passive; after a while, they just lay down and took it.

You cannot directly change your emotions but you can change what you pay attention to.

Then, when he took the dogs who could not escape the shock in the first experiment and put them in a cage where they could get away from the shock, they still did nothing. And when he tried to teach them to get out of the cage, he had to spend a lot of time showing them they could escape. To be accurate, there were always some dogs who did hardly anything once they found themselves trapped, and there were some dogs who had been trapped but quickly learned later to escape. But the results I am talking about were averages.Seligman was fascinated with these results, because he thought the dogs had learned to be helpless, and a sense of helplessness is a key component of depression. So he asked if he could “immunize” dogs from this learned helplessness. He took a group of dogs and let them hear a tone before the shock went off. And he gave these dogs the opportunity to jump out of the cage when they heard the tone. The fascinating result was: these dogs never became passive. When they were put in a cage from which they could not escape, they never stopped trying, and they escaped immediately when they could.

Why? They had acquired a sense of efficacy with regard to the shocks.

Seligman thought this was an interesting model to apply to human beings because of the common feeling in depression that there is nothing that can be done that will make a difference. So, he asked: Could humans likewise be immunized against feelings of helplessness and hopelessness? To test this, Seligman put human beings in situations similar to that of the dogs: The subjects would get shocked, but some did not have control over it and some did. Fascinatingly, he found that some people always tried to get control and some did not. Seligman posited that the difference lay in the way the people explained the cause of their failure: whether they blamed it on themselves or on circumstances.

Explanatory Styles

Out of this, Seligman developed a theory of explanatory styles. According to this theory, there are three dimensions to an explanatory style: the permanence with which you think a cause exists; the pervasiveness of the cause, in other words, how universally true or how limited it is; and whether the cause lies within you or outside.  Seligman argues that these explanatory styles give rise to what we conventionally call optimists and pessimists. And he has developed an Attributional Style Questionnaire by which to test people. You can see more information about explanatory styles here.

In terms of the dimensions of these styles, I think the character of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead is a model of the optimistic attributional style. He does not believe that evil is permanent. He does believe that there are people he can reach by persuasion and by demonstrating what is good in his buildings. And he certainly does not think that failure is his fault.

You can pay attention to your possibilities. You can take an entrepreneurial attitude towards your life.

But I would like to examine one other aspect of the research in relation to the psychology of hope. In some experiments, people rated optimists and pessimists have been given tests in which they sometimes are and sometimes are not in control of an event, such as a light’s turning on. Pessimists, and depressed people in particular, tend to have a very accurate sense about whether they are actually in control. Optimists, however, consistently overrate their control. If the light does not turn on, they have some explanation for it; if the light does turn on, they think they did it. This suggests that optimists, if they are going to be rational optimists, must guard against a temperamental disposition to over-optimism.

On the other hand, I believe there is clearly a sense in which pessimists are also unrealistic. They may make accurate judgments about when they do and do not have control over an event, but I believe they make inaccurate judgments about when they could and could not get control over an uncontrolled event, because of their belief that their helplessness is permanent, pervasive, and personal. Unfortunately, I do not know of any laboratory experiments that have attempted to test this hypothesis.

The Real and the Possible

This brings me to the heart of my lecture. What can we do to sustain a rational optimism?

I think that fundamentally there is one important fact that offers us two keys. The important fact is that you cannot directly change your emotions but you can change what you pay attention to, at least to a large extent. This enables you to make yourself more alert for opportunity.

Thus, the first key is: You can carefully focus on the facts about your situation and yourself. Is this the way things have to be or is it just the way they happen to be? Is this the way of the world or just the way things are in my immediate surroundings?

The second key is: You can pay attention to your possibilities. Is this something you can change or not? You can take an entrepreneurial attitude towards your life.

Do not accept impossibility without overwhelming evidence.

To me, these are the two elements involved in having a habit of hope. Make it your habit to pay attention to exactly what is the case and what is not; what is good in your life and what is not. And make it a habit to ask: What are my possibilities? Be especially alert to whether there are possibilities for change which you failed to see before.

People can have a lot of limitations when it comes to what we would consider leading a normal life and yet have a very hopeful attitude. That has to do with what they are paying attention to. Are they looking at what they cannot do or at what they can do? Are they looking at what they do not control or at what they do control? In this respect, I think that success is: functioning up to your fullest capacity and being alert to all the facts and possibilities within your personal context. This means recognizing the barriers to your control: Are you a healthy human being or not? Are you living in a relatively free society or a relatively unfree society? In judging your success, you need to take these contexts into account.

To be sure, the conditions of success can be very complex. It is often hard to know what is possible, both positively and negatively. And this is one of the things that optimists and pessimists disagree about the most: the realm of the possible. The optimist says “I’m going to keep looking. I’ve got this idea and I think I can do it.” The pessimist has a million reasons why something isn’t going to work.

To say that is not to declare that the optimistic attitude is always the right one. As much as we want to have control and want to know that we can do things, it may be that we do not know-after all, we cannot know everything. But we can turn that truth around and make it an optimistic statement: “Well, yeah, I don’t know everything and I don’t know for sure I can do it. But I don’t know for sure that I can’t do it. And I know for sure that if I don’t try, nothing’s going to happen.”

Ten Habits of Hope

Following are some suggestions to help you develop a habit of hope:

1. Check your generalizations about the world for an “explanatory style” that is pessimistic, or unjustifiably optimistic.

2. Remember that, ultimately, you are in control of how you act.

3. When trying to determine a course of action, ask: What is the range of the possible? This is the most difficult judgment to make, especially when one is attempting something new. If the range is too restricted by one’s conception of the world, your hopes will be too few and too small, and your imagination and motivation curtailed: you won’t adequately explore the possible. If the range is too unrestricted by facts and reason, your hopes will be impossible and time will be wasted.

4. Do not accept impossibility without overwhelming evidence. For many, many situations, we do not and cannot have complete certainty about the outcome. But that alone is not reason to give up on a course of action. Develop a habit of looking for alternative means of achieving your goals.

5. Be alert to when you do not have control over external events, so that you can think of ways to get control.

6. Once you have a specific goal, identify obstacles to your success and the possibilities of overcoming them. Ask: What is the adversity here? What are my premises? Are they true? Am I making a pessimistic judgment or an unjustifiably optimistic judgment? Do not rule out a judgment just because it sounds pessimistic. Remember that you want to be “rationally optimistic,” not Pollyana-ish.

7. If you find yourself giving up, ask: What is my reason? Am I sure it is a good reason?

8. But ask about the chances of failure, too: What would be the true cost of failure? Can I bear it? Be sure to ask these questions early, before you have invested too much emotion in success.

9. De-catastrophize. Learn to judge the facts of your situation precisely and to take into account the available alternatives rather than leaping to the conclusion that all is lost.

10. Stop ruminating. If you fail, sit down purposefully and learn the lessons of the failure. Decide how to do things better. Then put the failure behind you.

Originally published in 1999 for The Atlas Society.