Hope springs eternal in the human breast ….. but why?

Pandora's Box Mel

“Life isn’t about how to survive the storm, but how to dance in the rain.”

Mythical Gods were the first to reference hope and its role in  human experience. Pandora, the first woman, was given a box full of wonderful gifts.  She was told never to open it,  but her curiosity got the better of her, and,  to her horror, the lovely gifts turned to  poverty, disease, unhappiness… The final one out of the box was Hope, who  flew out into a world which now contained hate, crime, and envy.  Only hope could make such a world tolerable.

Evolutionary psychologists ask: given Darwin’s  law of natural selection, what is the evolutionary value of our behaviours or feelings or experiences?  How do they contribute to the survival of the species, collectively and/or individually?

The answer to that question for hope is that it helps us in two ways: to survive the storm; and to thrive and flourish: to dance in the rain.

Hope: surviving the storm… physically…

The role of our literal, physical survival is best demonstrated by Viktor Frankl’s experiences in the death camps, (referred to in my previous post on hope HERE) and documented in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.  In his reflections on the survival of the fittest in Hitler’s prisons, Frankl commented: “the best of us didn’t survive the camps” meaning that the strong survived, frequently at the expense of their fellow men, but the good, who wouldn’t sacrifice others, didn’t.  He is inferring that, for the good, the impulse not to hurt others can over-ride the survival instinct.

…. and psychologically….

Hope is an essential feature of our psychological survival. In his book The Priniciple of Hope, the philosopher Ernest Bloch observes that throughout history, and in all cultures, people have dreamed of a better life and constructed various kinds of utopias. Utopian dreams are present in art forms such as poetry, drama, music and painting, and in elementary form in children’s  fairy-tales and popular legends. Some utopias relate simply to immediate private ends, but the higher kind of revolutionary utopia envisages the end of human suffering.

Two recent novels have explored these ideas of physical and psychological survival in fascinating ways.  The Booker prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan about the building of the Burma Railway during World War II shows us a world where the men, permanently teetering on the brink of death, helped each other whenever they could, right up to the point where to do so would have resulted in their own death.

In her newly published novel The Ship, author Antonia Honeywell presents us with the Utopian dream of one man, Michael, in a hellish dystopian world. To save his beloved daughter he populates a ship with five hundred good people and escapes, in his efforts to ensure both the physical and psychological survival of his daughter.  The good versus the strong is one of this novel’s underlying themes, as is the role hope plays in a fulfilled life.

Hope is a powerful mechanism both consciously and unconsciously: Winnicott, a developmental psychologist sees a child’s anti social behaviour as expressing an unconscious hope for management by the wider society, when containment within the immediate family had failed; how a child, in a desperate cry for help, tries to attract the attention of someone, anyone, who might rescue them from their plight.

Hope: learning to dance in the rain….  

Our hopes drive us to be better, to improve and to fulfil our own potential – our own personal Utopian dream.

Hope is the foundation of achievement: without it, we would take no initiatives.  Evolutionary psychologists point to cave men and women to demonstrate a human drive for achievement based on thriving. Colourful friezes painted on the walls of ancient caves provide evidence of an intrinsic creative impulse, art for art’s sake.

This notion of human achievement and its roots was highlighted recently in the work of Dr Sonja Lyubormirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California.  Supported by a $5million research grant to explore the possibility of permanently increasing human happiness, she developed the concept of the “happiness pie” which defines 50% of happiness as determined by genetic factors that are beyond our control.

happiness pie

Those people with a high happiness set point are simply happy by nature – others, not so much….  Of the remaining 50% of the pie, 10% of happiness is determined by personal circumstances that are only partially under control.  The remaining 40% is within our control: the result of intentional activity – setting goals and taking action to achieve them.   Hope is the start point of this activity –  and success leads to fulfilment and happiness.

Subsequent researchers have extended the scope of this controllable 40% of happiness to include how we think and our relationships – again, all factors within our control.

In her book The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky sets out how we can permanently increase our own happiness by what we do and how with think, regardless of our genetic set point.

That’s a very hopeful idea isn’t it?

surviving the storm






Illustration of Pandora’s Box by Melanthe Grand

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