p>Human beings are ambitious and goal-oriented creatures. Many, for example, aim at stable and fulfilling careers, good health, and happy families. Some also pursue broader aims, such as social justice, technological progress, or scientific discovery. But with such ambition comes adversity. When our central aims come under threat, as they inevitably do, we often find ourselves pessimistic or fearful. Despair might threaten to take hold. It is thus tempting to look to hope and optimism as ways of withstanding, or even smothering, these negative emotions. But should we? This review is a detailed examination of the nature and value of hope and optimism.
By and large, American society affirms the value of hope and optimism. A brief glance at your local bookstore’s self-help section is sure to display such bestsellers as Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Live an Awesome Life. In similar fashion, politicians seeking votes regularly promise us hope. Here we are reminded of Barack Obama’s well-known HOPE t-shirts and George W. Bush’s slogan, “A safer world and a more hopeful America” (Stitzlein 2019a, p. 5). But are hope and optimism really all they’re cracked up to be?
There are growing doubts about the value of positive thinking. Speaking about the threat of climate change, Greta Thunberg remarks, “Adults keep saying, ‘we owe it to young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic” (2019, p. 22). In a memorable exchange between Ezra Klein and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the problem of political polarization, Coates asked, “I wonder how much hope you hold out for curing those institutional ills, those deepseated ills, in a way that we would all find peaceable.” Klein responded, “I’m not here to give you hope.” Coates then replied, “Good, because I don’t want it” (Klein, 18 Feb. 2020).
In these remarks, Thunberg, Coates, and Klein are speaking of hope rather than optimism. This is important because they are distinct phenomena. One of the key tasks of this review will be to pry apart these two forms of positive thinking. Central to the distinction is that while optimism implies confidence in a successful outcome, hope does not. There is thus a possibility of “hoping against hope” even when optimism is lost. Because hope and optimism are distinct, their respective advantages and disadvantages are best explored separately. Here I begin with optimism and move subsequently to hope. It can likewise be misleading to talk about whether hope and optimism are good “on the whole.” Such abstract pronouncements obscure the differing roles that hope and optimism play in distinct aspects of our lives. Consequently, this review focuses on the functions of hope and optimism in different domains, including, for instance, healthcare, education, and politics.
The primary subject of this review is the Hope and Optimism Initiative, a $4.5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation led by researchers at Notre Dame, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. This grant also supported numerous sub-projects for scholars working around the world. </p