“Whatever causes night in our souls may leave stars.” ~Victor Hugo
Hope is unique. It is the exception among positive emotions because it requires negativity or uncertainty to be activated. Due to COVID-19, more people have these two raw feelings than at any point in history.
Understanding hope goes back more than fifty years. University of Pennsylvania researchers Martin Seligman and Steve Maier investigated a phenomenon where animals didn’t try to escape from shocks if they were conditioned to believe that they couldn’t. The term “learned helplessness” evolved as the findings seemed to demonstrate that learning to give up in one situation caused passivity in another. They theorized that depression results from a real or perceived inability to control the outcome of a circumstance based on past learned experiences. When Seligman’s book, Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death, was released in 1975[i], it launched a revolution in the treatment of depression worldwide. For therapists, this was a compelling theory offering tools in the treatment of depression. By helping people figure out what they can and can’t control, there were improvements. One problem: the theory was wrong.
In their fifty-year follow-up, Maier and Seligman proved they were incorrect. Depression wasn’t the result of learned helplessness at all. In the ’60s, technology didn’t allow for understanding the subtle features of brain functioning. Now they were able to use advances in brain science and biochemistry to discover what makes us helpless and what generates hope. In their own words: “Passivity in response to shock is not learned. It is the default, unlearned response to prolonged aversive events…which in turn inhibits escape.”[ii]
Evolution programs us to shut down when exposed to chronically bad things. Just like our laptops will shut down when they overheat, a default switch in the brain between the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) flips. The (DRN) is a part of the brain associated with both fight/flight and fear/anxiety circuitry. When the (vmPFC), a part of the brain related to risk processing, detects escapable shocks, it inhibits the DRN and turns off the effects of the shock. When shocks are determined to be inescapable—passivity results. It is as if our survival instinct telling us to save energy and not waste effort struggling against persistently bad situations. As with our laptops, the shut-down is designed as damage control. When we get overwhelmed, we’re prevented from turning back on too soon. Helplessness isn’t learned— it’s involuntary during chronic adversity.
This new understanding emphasized it is the expectation of control that governs future responses to aversive events. Again, in Maier and Seligman’s words: “We speculate that it is expectations of a better future that most matter in treatment.” The brain’s pathway discovered by Maier and Seligman regulating this future forecasting is called, appropriately enough, the hope circuit.
Until recently, researchers studying hope only seem to have uncovered pieces of the whole. Like the parable of three blind men holding a different part of an elephant and trying to describe it, each seems accurate, yet incomplete. The one holding the tail says it looks like a snake, the one holding the leg believes it looks like the trunk of a tree, and the one holding the ear saying it looks like a bird. What might hope look like if all of the researchers were right?
We now know it can be cultivated, facilitated, and becomes more critical as we get older. In the first-of-its-kind study, researchers affiliated with the Human Flourishing Program[iii] at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science investigated the link between hope and aging. They found older adults (average age 66) with higher degrees of hope were more likely to have better physical, psychological, and social well-being. Those with greater hope had reduced risks of cancer, chronic conditions, sleep problems, chronic pain, and dying. They also reported increased positivity, higher life satisfaction, a greater sense of purpose, less psychological distress, and better social well-being. On the flip side, those with lower levels of hope or hopelessness had an elevated risk of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Having hope may be the best protection against a more difficult tomorrow. As one participant during a public service broadcast on hope recently expressed to me: “Hope may be the elephant in the room.”
[i] Martin, EP Seligman, and W. H. Seligman. “Helplessness: on depression, development and death.” (1975).
[ii] S. F. Maier and M. E. Seligman, “Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience,” Psychological Review 123(4) (2016): 349.
[iii] Long, Katelyn NG, et al. “The role of Hope in subsequent health and well-being for older adults: An outcome-wide longitudinal approach.” Global Epidemiology (2020): 100018.