Varieties of Hope
What do we hope for? How might that hope come to pass? How crucial to our overall future is the hoped for good? Answering these questions helps us to see that there are many kinds of hope.
Suppose a homeless woman said her fondest hope was to get an apartment for herself and her two children and a job that would let her afford the apartment. But how do you apply for a job when you live in a car? Even if you got a job, how can you keep it without childcare? The woman feels trapped—and guilty: she blames herself for the failed relationships that saddled her with the children, and she worries that she has undermined their future as well as her own. Most of the time, she lives in despair. Unsurprisingly, she is often also depressed.
How should we think about the future this woman desires? There are jobs she could work, there are apartments she might rent, and there are childcare providers (for a price), so in one sense her imagined future is possible. But as things stand now, the woman sees no way to put them together. To her, the good future seems impossible.
According to the “Hope Theory” of C.R. Snyder and his associates, the woman needs two things to gain hope. Charles R. Snyder (d. 2006) was a theorist in positive psychology at the University of Kansas. He postulated that hope consists of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes. Snyder and his colleagues have produced lots of empirical data to show that when a client gains these two self-perceptions many positive outcomes follow. She will feel better about her situation and she will be much more likely to gain the good future she desires.
Accordingly, “hope therapy” is pretty straightforward (though not easy). If as therapists or friends we want to help the woman, we need to help her imagine ways to find work, childcare and housing; and we need to help her to feel her own motivation to do those things. So imagine a friend or a social worker offering timely help. Together they think of ways forward: perhaps a relative or church can provide temporary shelter and an address; maybe the woman has friends she can trust for short term childcare while she interviews for jobs; the woman qualifies for housing assistance from the government; and there is a program of subsidized transportation in the area. Once the woman sees that these routes might actually get her to her goal and she realizes that she can use them, she has hope.
I do not imply, by this illustration, that overcoming homelessness is as easy as thinking differently. “Hope theory” does not imply that. According to “hope theory,” hope consists in the new way of thinking, that there are routes to the goal and that the agent can take them. But hope is still only hope; the good future is still future. Unseen obstacles or bad luck can get in the way.
What the illustration does show is this. Some of the things we hope for are “possibles,” in that we think we know how they might come about, while other good futures are “impossibles,” because we have no idea how to achieve them. At first, the woman thought of a future with an apartment + job + childcare as impossible; later, we imagine her seeing this future as possible.
Actually, even that is too simple. Rather than segregate our hopes into “possibles” and “impossibles,” we should see that the things we hope for fall into a wide spectrum. On one end are good futures that we think are very likely (e.g. I fervently hope someone other than Donald Trump will be elected president in 2016, and I am extremely confident my hope will come true), and at the other extreme are good futures we think are very unlikely (e.g. I hope that environmentally benign renewable energy sources will crowd fossil fuels out of the market in my lifetime, but I don’t expect it). The good futures we want—the things we hope for—lie scattered all across this spectrum.
Besides probability, the things we hope for also differ in the mechanisms by which they might come about. “Hope Theory” focuses exclusively on the routes and motivations of the agent. Suppose someone hopes for plentiful snow and an early start to the ski season. Such a case falls outside the scope of Snyder’s theory, since there is no way for the agent to bring about the thing hoped for. “Hope therapists” would advise us to concentrate on the things we can change, or at least influence.
Nevertheless, the class of things we cannot bring about includes some important hopes. Like all orthodox Christians, I hope for the resurrection of the dead. I can do nothing to make this great thing happen, yet I think this hope is—and should be—central to my life. The fact that Snyder’s theory has almost nothing to say about such transcendent hopes is a significant limitation to his theory. “Hope Theory” has other defects as well, but I reserve that discussion for another time. Snyder’s theory illuminates certain aspects of some hope, a very useful thing to have done.
In our taxonomy of hope, then, we can sort hopes by the objective probability that the hoped for thing will occur (from very likely to very unlikely) and by the mechanism of achievement (from under the influence of the agent to completely outside the agent’s power). And there is at least one more difference among hopes.
Some things we hope for are not really very dear to us, while other hopes are so important as to be essential to any good future. Again, we should think of a range from very unimportant hopes to the most important ones. A person might hope for ice cream after dinner (little importance), for a promotion at work (moderate importance), or for an end to a civil war (great importance).
In summary, then: the things we hope for differ in their probability, in their mechanism of achievement, and in their importance. If hope is a virtue, as many moral philosophers aver, that virtue may be better exemplified in some hopes than in others.