Does Hope Have a Downside?
It seems sacrilegious to refer to hope in anything but the most positive terms. One only needs to think of hope’s opposite – hopelessness – to know that is a state of mind we would never wish on someone else or ourselves. Hopelessness is implicated in the most serious of negative outcomes. Some consider hopelessness to be a cognitive state that makes people vulnerable to suicide according to the hopelessness theory of suicide. Negative thinking about future possibilities and a belief that one is helpless to improve his or her own future is believed to be a hallmark of the hopeless cognitive style (Klonsky, Kotov, Bakst, Rabinowitz & Bromet, 2012, as cited in Abramson, Alloy, Hogan, et al., 2000; Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989).
In disease diagnosis, hopelessness can be very detrimental to the patient’s ability to cope with the illness and treatment. Many studies can be found discussing the effect of hopelessness on individuals with a variety of ailments from cancer to Lyme disease. Again, we would never want to take away someone’s hope, a very important component in being able to handle treatment and healing, and maintaining long-term health. According to the late researcher on hope, Charles Snyder PhD, hope is “a powerful psychological asset in the face of a challenging environment” (Snyder, 2000, as cited in Bruininks & Malle, 2006, p.329).
But, can there be times when hope is actually detrimental? I have often recalled listening many years ago to one of my favorite positive thinking teachers and psychologists, Robert Anthony, PhD, who said, “Hope is the expectation that something outside of ourselves, something or someone external, is going to come to our rescue and we will live happily ever after” (Anthony, 2005). In that lesson, he goes on to say that hope does not actually allow us to come from a place of strength when we want to change our lives. Instead, it can encourage passivity and a lowered feeling of self-efficacy.
This was the first time I ever thought of hope in less than glowing terms. Back then, what Dr. Anthony said made me wonder, every day, about the beautiful crystal and bead hanger with a small gold medallion inscribed with the word “HOPE” that I had hung in my office cubicle. To bolster my spirits, I located it where I could see it easily throughout my workday. It was meant as an inspiration for something better as I worked at a job that seemed to get more difficult and dysfunctional each day. I failed to see a way out any time soon, and I suddenly wasn’t sure if seeing that simple word each day was making me feel stronger or more helpless. I could suddenly understand Dr. Anthony’s point.