Hope: is it a feeling? is it a thought?


Somewhere, over the rainbow

Skies are blue

And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

 Arlen and Harburg

Honor wished she had been called Hope; that was something she could do without even thinking about it.  Though as her first therapist had pointed out, it was hopelessness she couldn’t bear, that she turned away from.  (Honor’s Ghost)

Mythology tells the story of Noah’s Ark and the flood that was visited on earth by God in order to wipe out the human race just about all of whom had become sinners. After the rains of the flood the first rainbow symbolized hope of a new beginning.

Over the last century, ideas and insights about hope have had two high points.  The first was in the years following the Second World War, when Viktor Frankl wrote extensively of his experiences in the death camps, and the part hope played in his survival. The second high point is right now when Marty Seligman, and other eminent psychologists highlighted hope as an element of Positive Psychology.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist was an inmate of both Auschwitz and Belsen, two of the most notorious and brutal of Hitler’s death camps in World War II.  Young, healthy prisoners were spared the gas chambers, only to be worked to the bone at the gruesome tasks of clearing the dead bodies. Frankl kept himself going against all odds, by savouring a memory of playing the piano in his parents warm and comfortable home. In flights of memory and imagination, he recalled and re-lived this wonderful experience, escaping for a while the terrible realities of his daily life.  He attributes this memory, along with his hope that he could one day return home, to his survival in the camps.  And he noticed that, for many prisoners, a day would arrive when they simply could not face it any more, and they turned their faces to the wall, impervious to all threats, and simply waited for death.  All hope had gone.

After the war, Frankl used his experiences to develop a new form of psychotherapy, called logotherapy, with the central belief that therapy should focus on generating human hope, by finding one’s mission or purpose in life as a guiding star. The hope for something more, something better, can get you through the worst of human experiences, as it had done for him through the unimaginable horror  of Auschwitz.  Amongst his many books, “Mans’ Search for Meaning: the classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust” and “Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning” became bestsellers and are considered to be amongst the most profound works of the 21st century.

Around twenty years ago, Marty Seligman, one of America’s most eminent psychologists, with a lifetime of work on pessimism and optimism behind him, posed a question to psychology which had never been asked before (rather amazingly with hindsight..)

Why has psychology spent all its time studying what goes wrong with human experience? Why don’t we study what goes right?

Well, duh, as a teenager would say…. Obviously, if we understand what goes well for us, when and why and how, we can choose to recreate and replicate those conditions as frequently as possible. And that would be energising and inspiring.

Seligman convened a group of colleagues to study the conditions for human flourishing.  They began by developing a framework to identify Character Virtues, those human qualities that contribute to positive human experience.  Twenty four virtues were identified, Hope being one of them.  You can see all twenty four of them HERE. You can complete a questionnaire HERE to identify your own top five strengths. Seligman believes that if you have frequent opportunities to express your character strengths, you will be a happier person.

Of the twenty four virtues, five have been found to be especially potent for human happiness: hope, gratitude, kindness, love and forgiveness.

Seligman’s new branch of Positive Psychology has led to an explosion of research around the world and is influencing thinking everywhere around well-being and happiness.  His extensively researched programme of Resilient Thinking is now taught to 11 year old children in many enlightened schools (private and state) throughout the UK (See if you want to know more about this work, which I am involved in).  It is also, believe it or not, taught to soldiers in the United States Army and their families. How great is that?

As a result of this research, Seligman and his colleagues assert that:

  • Hope is the existence of a goal, combined with a determined plan for reaching that goal: hope is linked to mental willpower.
  • Hope is different from optimism which is a generally positive outlook, a belief that all will be well… but there is no inherent move to action.Optimism may lead to an over reliance on luck or fate.
  • Hope, in contrast, is defined as a combination of the hope for an outcome along with the plan to make it happen.  Hope, not optimism, predicted higher academic grades and greater life satisfaction.
  • The optimistic (and opportunistic…) pop singer will turn up for their X factor audition, eager to convince the judges: ‘this is my dream’. And it turns out they’ve never had a singing lesson….  The hopeful contestant will also profess their dream, one supported by their lifelong music lessons, their ability to read music, play an instrument and hold a tune.

Or, as Frankl would say:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor Frankl

Rainbow painting by Melanthe Grand.

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