In the context of healing and self-improvement, there is a popular term that’s often tossed around: hope. However, rarely do people—including experts—talk about it in depth or even define it in any objective or coherent way. In this article, we will do exactly that. We will look at what this term entails and how to make more sense of it.
When people say hope, they usually mean two things. If you look at the definition, it says that hope is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen, or an optimistic attitude of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large.
So there are two important aspects of it. One, an expectation for something to happen. And two, wanting for something positive to happen.
That’s the popular definition of it. Now, what does it all mean in terms of healing and personal growth?
Let’s talk about the most popular concept first: having a positive attitude towards the process you are going through and the result you are wishing for.
Many say that it is important to have hope, to think optimistically, to believe that you will be okay, and that everything will be fine. It’s easy to see that this mindset can be beneficial. When we feel lost, confused, hurt, self-doubtful, hope helps us feel better. It helps us keep going. It helps us not give up.
However, what is not often discussed are the negative effects of these beliefs. Yes, it can comfort us when we are on the right path, but it isn’t a universal rule because not everyone is on the right path.
That’s the problem with “positive thinking,” “optimism,” and similar attitudes: not every story has a happy ending, and some paths are better than others. Doing whatever you feel like doing and “hoping for the best” is not necessarily helpful. In many cases, it’s quite the opposite since you are abandoning self-agency in the process and acting inefficiently or even self-destructively.
For example, there are many people who severely lack self-responsibility, so they live their life passively. They think that whatever is happening in their life is because of some outside forces, be it destiny, stars, universe, god(s), karma, etc. And so they live their life unconsciously and do whatever by justifying it as “life happening because of [insert an outside force here]” instead of seeing themselves as being responsible for that life and having control over how it is.
So for many people in many scenarios, the term hope simply means I want this to happen but it is not necessarily tied to my personal agency and factual reality, or I want it but I don’t want to do what’s necessary to achieve it, so I’ll just hope for it.
In psychology, this is sometimes called wishful thinking or magical thinking or even delusion. It can help us feel good, but as you may have already figured out, the fact that you feel good doesn’t necessarily mean that things are okay.
Hoping for the best is not enough to get better, and it doesn’t necessarily result in actually getting better. It’s just something you would like to happen, which actually may or may not happen, depending on numerous factors and variables.
Realistic hope and pessimism
The other aspect of hope is expectation. It is not just a blind wish, but rather an estimation or a prediction based on your interpretation of reality. Having realistic expectations is much more important that having “good feelings.” So if you are overly positive about your progress or prognosis, you will only fall harder when it doesn’t go the way you “hoped” for.
However, a lot of people often stumble into a mindset that’s opposite to optimism: pessimism.
Here, a person might say, “It’s not going to work because of this, this, and this.” Or, “What’s the point of me trying so hard and still not getting where I want to be.”
While sometimes it’s objectively true, oftentimes a person simply thinks they are being realistic but they are simply being pessimistic and using it as an excuse to quit or not to try harder. Here, they also abandon self-agency.
What’s the best attitude then?
If we understand hope as two main elements that are positivity and realistic expectation, then we can summarize it with the following spectrum.
Pessimism <–> Realism <–> Optimism
In my opinion, the healthiest mindset is to understand what you’re going through, to have a direction, to focus on your process, to periodically check on your progress, and do so in a positively-realistic manner. A good example of that is framing your situation positively yet realistically.
For instance, you could tell yourself that you will succeed no matter what (optimism). But how do you know that? Since it’s not verifiable, you don’t really believe it and may feel even worse because you are trying to convince yourself of something that isn’t verifiable and therefore highly doubtful.
The same situation occurs if you tell yourself that you will fail and there is no point of even trying (pessimism). You don’t know that. But just by trying, your chance of success—whatever it means to you here—is at least above zero percent. If you don’t even try, unless something random or out of your control happens, the chance of success is factually zero.
In contrast, you might tell yourself, “You are not alone struggling with this,” which is verifiable and true. This statement will give you a perspective that you are not alone in this world with your problems, which often alleviates anxiety. Or, “I am not where I want to be, but so far I have achieved this, and that seems to be working for me,” which is also true and empowering.
So, instead of deluding yourself with “positive thoughts” or feeling stuck in a helpless and passive state, recognize your self-responsibility in a realistic way and look for realistic solutions.
The truth is that not everyone achieves what they want to achieve. At the same time, all of us have our own problems. A lot of those problems are similar among us. There are various solutions for those problems. Some of them are more known than others. Some of them work better than others. Nobody can tell you what approach to take because you have to make your own choices.
However, a lot of people are able overcome many of their problems, or at least make them bearable. Indeed, even the problems that you probably have and that sometimes appear unsolvable. It doesn’t mean that you will, too—but it means that there is realistic hope for it.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.