The argument against hope

So, I came across a concept this week which has blown my mind a little bit.

I read a book over the weekend which was hilarious and smart and for 203 pages I wholeheartedly agreed with every single point that was made. Every single point.

And then this happened.

The author mentioned that she unequivocally hates hope. That no good comes from it.

“Hope is a lie. Hope doesn’t work. Hope to be clear, doesn’t fix shit.”

Reflecting on time spent with an unwell ex-partner on a neurological ward in hospital she writes:

Even if few truly believe that pain can be treated with bone broth or a Tesla pendant, many believe in the medical power of hope. They believe that if a patient is not sufficiently ‘positive’ to believe in the possibility of a cure, however unlikely it is, then they are not prepared to live…

This is absolute bollocks, of course. Often nothing works at all. ..

These moments of hope serve only those of us in good health who do not care to see hope disappear.

It goes on. Like me, this author enjoys a rant.

Some of the ranting really resonated. There are probably a number of times we do need to be cautious with hope. Possibly during a break-up (as the author was experiencing), and maybe unrealistic hope in the face of terminal illness is unnecessary, but to be cautious all the time?

Turns out there’s some evidence that backs up her point a bit too.

Research, published in the Economic Journal, suggests that hope makes people feel worse. The researchers' starting point was what happens to the long-term unemployed when they reach retirement age. According to 25 years of German data, ‘retiring from unemployment’ delivers a significant increase in life satisfaction. It isn't explained by other factors, like a change in benefits, and the employed don't get the same boost when they retire. Nor, the authors argue, is it simply that other people judge the jobless more harshly. It's that when we're unemployed, there's always the hope of finding a job, and people "thus feel the permanent pressure to fulfil the norms of their social category… Ironically, it is hope that keeps them unhappy while unemployed, and it is only when hope fades that they will recover." Retirement means the end of hoping for a job, which feels like a release.

It’s possible that this odd notion sheds light on another mysterious but well-supported finding about trauma. As we'd expect, we take it harder when we become widowed than when we lose our jobs – but all else being equal, we actually recover more fully. It’s hypothesised that this might be because widowhood is irreversible. We’ve always got the hope of being happy again, certainly, bit no hope of changing our widow(er) status. Bereavement is a hope-free zone.

There’s a few out there who share the belief that if we give up hope we will be set free. John Ptacek, a US author, wrote of finding meaning through hopelessness after his wife's terminal cancer diagnosis: "Time spent hoping for happier days is time spent turning away from life." Derrick Jensen, an environmental campaigner, believes hope makes activism less effective since it involves placing faith in someone or something else to make things better, instead of doing what's needed yourself: "A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realise you never needed it in the first place… you become very dangerous indeed to those in power."

However, I don’t know if this is abandoning hope all together. But finding the difference between false and realistic hope. And also attempting to find the degree of agency we have.

When confronted by the reality of the concentrations camps, Victor Frankl did not hope to dig his way out of his prison. That was not possible, and such hopes would soon have been thwarted. Instead, he controlled his own mind, and (probably) vaguely hoped for something realistic—that the war would end and he might be freed. That made the difference.

Abandoning hope all together is definitely not for me. Like all the good stuff, probably another of those things best enjoyed in moderation.

I have no hopes to become the world’s most famous Beatle impersonator. Or the next Dr Phil. Much better to hope that over time people with mental illness get access to the treatment they deserve. I hope that these little cards of ours might make someone feel just a little bit better. Or that someone experiencing an episode of mental illness can have enough hope to hang on through the dark times. Like I did.

Here’s hoping.

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