Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Learned Hopefulness

As youknow, hope is the opposite of despair. In French the connection is clearer: espoir is the word for hope; d├ęsespoir means despair.

In the world of mental health, despair is treated as depression. It is reasonable to conclude that hope is either the cure for depression or the sign that one is not depressed. One or the other, not both.

Whereas Freud and those who suffered his influence were in the business of producing depression, modern cognitive therapists have set out to cure it. In the Freudian worldview life is a tragedy. You play your role well or poorly, but you do play your role. In cognitive therapy you are taught to balance your pessimistic thoughts with more optimistic ones, eventually to learn how to face the future optimistically and hopefully.

Since you can never know the future until it arrives, you can only face it with an optimistic attitude if you have faith. Admittedly, no one likes to speak in such terms, but those who have faith in a positive future outcome are less likely to be depressed. Those who believe that we lost nothing when we lost our faith should perhaps reconsider their views.

Elizabeth Bernstein reports on the latest research about hope:

Research shows it’s a crucial element of our physical and mental well-being. People who have a higher level of hope have healthier habits: They sleep and exercise more, eat more healthy foods and practice safer sex. They also have fewer colds, less hypertension and diabetes, are more likely to survive cancer and have less depression.

Students who have more hope have higher grades, and hope is a bigger predictor of who will finish college than SAT or ACT scores, studies show. Couples who share hopes and dreams are more satisfied and more likely to last.

Of course, this does not mean that hope or hopefulness produces these good outcomes by itself. For all we know, the researchers have discovered a correlation, not a causation.

We are inured to imagine that some internal mental state produces behavior, but it might well be the case, as some thinkers have argued, that it’s the other way around. If our good habits produce  beneficial results, we will be more likely to cultivate more good habits and to be hopeful that they will continue to produce good results.

In truth, there is nothing about hope that requires you to do anything. We can imagine a poor soul who has high hopes for the future but who does not have the discipline or the intestinal fortitude to do what is necessary to bring the hoped-for future into being. He might be sitting around hoping that something will happen.

The research recognizes this point when it adds agency to hope. That is, it insists that feeling hopeful is insufficient. You need to translate your hope into consequential actions.

Bernstein writes:

Hope’s crucial component, psychologists say, is agency. People who are hopeful don’t just have a goal or wish, they have a strategy to achieve it and the motivation to implement their plan. Hope is the belief that the future will be better than the present and that you have some power to make it so. It differs from optimism, which is the belief that things will work out no matter what you do.

This distinction matters. Hope is not about a wish or an attitude or even an emotion. It’s less about how you feel than about what you do. Thus, hope begins with a strategy to achieve a goal and then with a plan. One ought to ask how many therapists work with their patients to develop a strategy and a plan. If they just talk up the virtues of hope without the agency, they are leading their patients toward despair.

It follows that the best way to learn hope is to work out an action plan. Bernstein explains:

Yet, psychologists have found they can teach people to gain or restore hope. In a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies in August 2011, researchers measured the hope levels of 96 college students at Santa Clara University in California by asking them to rate how much they agreed with statements such as “I can think of many ways to get out of a jam” and “there are lots of ways around a problem.”

The researchers then asked the participants to identify a goal that excited them, multiple pathways to that goal, obstacles to the pathways and ways around the obstacles. They measured each student’s level of hope immediately after this exercise and again one month later. They found that the participants experienced a significant increase in hope—and that it was sustained.

Among the other ways to develop a more positive attitude, psychologists recommend doing what you do best, frequenting people who have a positive attitude, and perhaps even developing faith in something larger than yourself.

All of this is good and valuable. And yet, one cannot avoid the thought that our current president ran on a platform of “hope and change” and even wrote a book called “The Audacity of Hope.” For my part I have always found something jarring in the book title. If the book is not about an audacious friend named Hope, its title is agrammatical. The fact that no one much cared about the point continues to strike me as very strange.

As it happens, the psychologists who test hopefulness have decided that Barack Obama’s speeches show the most hope. And yet, when it comes to Islamist terrorism Barack Obama has no idea of what he wants to achieve. He has no strategy and no action plan for combatting ISIS. I refer to the comments by Roger Cohen quoted yesterday in my post on Tony Blair and “flabby liberalism.” As for the economy, it has undergone something of a recovery but the Obama policy prescriptions have produced the most anemic recovery since the Depression.

And clearly, the nation that put Barack Obama in the White House is not very hopeful after seven years of his empty rhetoric. His administration has especially failed the people who placed the most hope in him, American minority voters. Under Obama the nation has descended into a slough of despond, a state of despair that reflects what happens when hope seems empty and where the future seems threatening.

2 comments:

Ares Olympus said...

Bernstein: Hope’s crucial component, psychologists say, is agency. People who are hopeful don’t just have a goal or wish, they have a strategy to achieve it and the motivation to implement their plan. Hope is the belief that the future will be better than the present and that you have some power to make it so. It differs from optimism, which is the belief that things will work out no matter what you do.

Stuart: As it happens, the psychologists who test hopefulness have decided that Barack Obama’s speeches show the most hope. And yet, when it comes to Islamist terrorism Barack Obama has no idea of what he wants to achieve. He has no strategy and no action plan for combatting ISIS.

I wonder if this isn't conflating two issues. You can have agency when you have control over outcomes, but when you're dealing with other people, when you're dealing with enemies or rivals, your agency is limited by the coherence of their hopes as well.

I'm still with Obama - its best to treat ISIS as a Junior Varsity team, even when they overachieving. Its better to talk about baseball that lament that the world is ending because people in despair are willing to kill others. There will ALWAYS be people in despair who will be willing to kill.

Ted Cruz's desire to "make sand glow with laser-focused carpet bombing" looks to me more about hysterical despair than hope. It's someone who can't handle reality, no better than the terrorists we need to hate to feel better about ourselves.

Building 2000 mile long walls and making other people pay for them, and raising the wall 10 feet when your rivals complain about your "agency" doesn't look like agency. It looks like a boastful ignorance of reality.

Doing nothing is sometime better than doing something, and doing the wrong things can be just as much "learned helplessness" as doing nothing for fear of doing the wrong things.

It's just tilting at windmills because it make you more hopeful for a few minutes.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. I see Paul Ryan is working on his "Hopey-changy stuff", with a morning speech on the state of Politcs, 15 minute speech, 15 minutes of questions.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kg2Noq77h9k

Could he be keeping the door open for a Brokered GOP convention in mid-July?

No news articles on it, but announcement here:
http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/273914-speaker-ryan-to-give-address-on-state-of-american-politics