In the study of psychology and practice of psychotherapy it is generally assumed that the concepts we use and problems we work with are universal and stand the test of time, yet some are timelier than others. If there is one problem that meets the need for these times it is the search for hope. The research on learned helplessness has shown that when faced with a challenge of seemingly insurmountable odds, it is likely that an organism, or individual if you like, eventually ceases to try to extricate itself from that situation before succumbing to exhaustion. Eventually, it is presumed, a decision is made, conscious or otherwise, that the expending of any further energy is not worth the effort in the face of the long odds of it ever succeeding, or perhaps it becomes just too painful to tolerate the withering disappointment about the payoff each effort fails to produce. In the face of stubborn adversity, it is not easy to summon hope.
Why Is Hope Important?
This seems like a question whose answer would be too obvious. Not necessarily says psychologist, Dan Tomasulo, in an article published in the most recent issue of Psychology Today (May 2023) titled, “How to Find Hope.” According to Dr. Tomasulo, hope becomes salient in our minds and concerns when it is most difficult to find. It is during times of such uncertainty as these when adversity prevails that hope becomes a most prized commodity. Knowing this has helped me realize that the old adage, “It is always darkest before dawn,” may be more than a truth; it is wisdom. Situations that threaten the loss of hope summon within us the capacity to find in ourselves what is necessary to overcome and prevail.
How To Cultivate Hope
In her article titled, “Hope is More Powerful Than You Think: 5 Ways to Build Your Hope Skills and Cultivate Greater Resilience,” (Psychology Today, May 18, 2022), psychologist, Ilene Berns-Zare, cites research that associates hope with greater emotional and physical well being, positive relationships, and productivity and achievement. The author references Kathryn Goetzke, creator of Hopeful Minds, who uses the mnemonic, “SHINE,” to engage basic principles that may be used to engender feelings of hope, some of which include practicing stress management, finding and using your talents, and setting goals.
It should be a not so surprising irony that the psychologist made famous for his research associating learned helplessness with clinical depression has devoted the remainder of his subsequent career studying positive psychology. Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, in his book, The hope circuit: A psychologist’s journey from helplessness to optimism (2019), introduced a program called “PERMA,” an acronym for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning, and Achievement, to help others learn the skills necessary to establish a lifestyle that promotes a hopeful attitude.
Drawing from his own as well as a large body of research that preceded him, Seligman’s model is predicated on the idea that living with a hopeful attitude is tantamount to fulfilling our basic human needs. Put in this way the endeavor to establish a more hopeful outlook and lifestyle is less a matter of learning and cultivating new ways of thinking and behaving than it is getting in touch with what simply makes us happy. Seligman’s list of needs includes rediscovering positive emotions, engaging in meaningful activities, nurturing positive relationships, savoring accomplishments, being present and mindful, strengthening resilience, taking risks, and accepting responsibility.
Realization That Relies on The Acknowledgement of Limitation
While all the aforementioned ideas sound good, and what can be more promising, after all, than gaining the ability to live with a hopeful attitude, it is as most of us eventually learn from repeated visits to the “Self-help” section of the bookstore that the exhilaration of the anticipation of better days suggested from bold promises stamped on each volume’s colorful dust jacket belies the hard work ahead. In the most recent volume of Psychology Today (May 2023), the feature topic, “The power of hope: The secret is focusing on what you can control,” several authors offer caveats intended to rein in the peddlers of hope who fail to sufficiently distinguish wishful thinking from the parameters within which the actualization of hope may become realistically possible. For example, in her article titled, "The Expectation-resentment Loop” psychologist, Peg O’Connor, cites, Epictetus, one of the founding members of the ancient Greek school of philosophy known as stoicism. Epictetus advised that we “not seek to have events happen as (we) want them to happen but instead want them to happen as they do happen,” an idea not far from learning the benefits of gratitude and appreciation. Tempering unrealistic expectations, according to Alex Lickerman, a physician from Chicago, may also be achieved by learning to appreciate the joy of anticipation itself. While at first blush it is disillusioning to learn that more often than not lived events are not as enjoyable as the pleasurable anticipation that precedes them, we can turn that disappointment around by learning to appreciate anticipation itself. And, I might add, it is also reassuring to learn, by the same token, that dreaded events are more often than not less unpleasant than we had feared.
At the Font of Despair
It is a paradox that in the moments that despair of its possibility does hope reveal the purchase gained by the insistent nature of its redeeming promise. Hope is found where it might least be expected. Author, mystic, and psychoanalyst, Michael Eigen, whose paper titled, “The fire that never goes out,” (The Psychoanalytic Review, volume 79, Summer 1992) had a lasting influence on my thinking, my life, and in my work as a psychologist. Donald Winnicott, an English psychoanalyst, as Eigen’s muse described, contrary to psychological theories that posit the achievement of integration as the sine qua non of human psychological development, how life is more akin to living in the spaces of transition, as much formless as it is distinct. Citing Winnicott’s discussion on the topic of democracy that draws on the parallels between human psychology and the political systems in which we live, Eigen avers that the criterion that should define psychological health is basically the same as that which makes democracy work. The capacity to accommodate the confluence of conflicting ideas within stands in contrast to totalitarian systems that seek to contain and fix them in dogmatic fashion. In both social systems and human psychological health, strength derives from the capacity to tap the potential that lies in the unintegrated elements that comprise unrealized promise. Hence, we may find that from the origins of confusion that spin despair, hope gains us possibility to reach its most palpable realization. Failing that, in despair of the limits that the promise of hope can’t penetrate, may we realize the limitless wellspring our capacity to hope can provide.
Robert Hamm Ph.D