Hope: nature or nurture?

Swallow“Hope is a talent, like any other”

Storm Jameson.

In times of struggle, symbols of hope, the swallow for example, can motivate people to keep going.  In times gone by, sailors facing the power of the ocean had a swallow tattooed on their arm before setting out on a voyage, and then another swallow tattoo upon their return to port. It was also said that if the sailor drowns, swallows would carry their soul to heaven. As swallows never traveled far out to sea, their sighting meant that land was near and the long journey was coming to an end.

So far, in this series of blogs on hope, we have seen the power of hope in devastating circumstances and the disastrous consequences that can ensue when hopelessness prevails.  Hope is a key component in both surviving and thriving: hopeful people are generally happier and healthier than unhopeful people.

Is hope nature, something we are born with? Or is it nurture, something we learn?  The ongoing debate around nature or nurture crystallised a century ago with the debate about IQ (intelligence quotient) which has been heated and controversial.  The general consensus is that IQ is 80% nature and 20% nurture.

When something is nature, that is biological/genetic, then you’re stuck with it and it’s unchanging. If it’s nurture you can develop and improve.

Hope appears to be a composite of thought and emotion that is activated during adversity or in the face of great ambition.  We only need hope when we are uncertain of something: it inspires us to plan for success or achievement.

Optimism, a close cousin of hope, has a biological component: it is a general disposition that is inherited. Some thinkers believe that hope, like optimism, is an inherited disposition too.

With the growing science of epigenetics, which is essentially the study of external or environmental factors that turn genes on or off, the nature/nurture debate has taken a new turn. It’s now moving away from nature or nurture, towards a more challenging question: how do nature and nurture interact, facilitated by the epigenetic system?

If hope is a pre-disposition, activated in challenging life circumstances, we can reasonably assume that some people are pre-disposed (nature) to hope more than others; and that some environments (nurture) may trigger hope to a different degree. The combinations of life circumstances and pre-disposition to hope would look like this:

 Predisposed to HopeNot predisposed to Hope
Life is easyHope not neededHope not needed
Life is challengingHope switches on, leading to more positive outcomesHopelessness ensues and survival maybe at risk


If hope is a talent, it can be schooled like any other. And the general consensus is that hope seems to be learned at an early age through the socialization process.

Much of recent research on hope has been led by Charles R. Snyder, who developed a brief questionnaire to measure baseline levels of hope.  You can complete and score your questionnaire HERE if you want to find out your own capacity for hope.

In my thirty years of practice as a business psychologist, I have noticed that hope is avoided when disappointment would be unbearable.  If I hope for something, and if I also believe that the disappointment of getting nothing will shatter me, I may decide it’s better not to hope in the first place.  The problem is, if I hope for nothing, I won’t plan for success, therefore increasing my chances of getting nothing.

So learning to deal with failure and disappointment is fundamental to the development of hope.  When failure is met with a shrug, and giving it another go, then disappointment is not shattering, and hope is not risky.

Most of us will have known disappointment in our lives, and we will also have learned that, whilst painful, we can survive it.

Carol Dwek is the author of Mind Sets, a book currently very influential in education, for it’s theory of fixed (nature) vs growth (nurture) mindsets. She demonstrated her beliefs personally by ensuring that her four children frequently witnessed her engaging in something she enjoyed, but was not particularly good at. Unconcerned by her failure, she simply tried a bit harder. That seems to me a great legacy to leave your children.

Failure is less damaging than not ever trying, right?

So let’s end this series on hope with the same evocative poem that it started with:

There is freedom waiting for you,

On the breezes of the sky,

And you ask, “What if I fall?”

Oh but my darling,

What if you fly?

 Erin Hanson    

Swallow illustration by Melanthe Grand

Starting in the next few weeks:  a blog series on the psychology of dreams. 

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