How Should We Hope? Advice #2
Immanuel Kant thought the central questions of human life revolved around knowledge (“What can I know?”), morality (“What ought I to do?”), and happiness (“For what may I hope?”). I want to explore five responses to Kant’s question about hope, all from contemporary thinkers. A central question in this series of essays rises when we compare and contrast the various advices. To what degree can these disparate voices be understood as complementing each other? To what degree are they contradictory?
The second advice comes from C.R. Snyder and his research associates. Snyder, who died in 2006, was a leading proponent of “positive” psychology. Positive psychology is a broad movement in late 20th century psychology that moves the focus of psychology from mental illness (fixing what is wrong) to the achievement of satisfactory life (pursuing and enjoying what is right or healthy). Snyder invented “hope theory” and “hope therapy,” but many other psychologists on his research team at the University of Kansas contributed to the development of the theory.
The heart of Snyder’s theory is simple. The core definition: Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes.
Much of human life is teleological; that is, we pursue goals. Snyder offers a simple diagram:
Protagonist (A) --> Goal (B).
But we often encounter obstacles that keep us from reaching our goals. This gives us a more complicated diagram.
Protagonist (A) --> [Block] Goal (B).
Two things are needed to reach life goals when obstacles get in the way, Snyder thought. A person needs to be able to think up “pathways” around the obstacle that may enable her to reach the goal, and she needs to have “agentic motivation” to invent these pathways and put them into practice.
Protagonist (A) --> [Block] Goal (B).
Snyder’s advice for hope, then, is straightforward. Ask yourself two questions: (1) Are you able to think of pathways to your goals? (2) Are you motivated to use the pathways to achieve your goals? If your answer to both questions is yes, then you have hope. On this theory, hope is entirely cognitive. It consists in the two affirmations just mentioned.
On the basis of this core theory, Snyder and his fellow researchers made several important claims, all of which they say are supported by empirical evidence. (1) Hope can be measured by simple, yet effective “hope scales.” The research team invented short (typically, 20 question) instruments that enabled them to evaluate individuals in different populations (children, adults, working people, etc.). (2) People who score higher on hope scales fairly reliably report higher levels of positive affect. Even though the theory defines hope as cognitive only, the higher the hope score, the better the patient feels. (3) Higher hope scores correlate with positive life outcomes, such as better relationships, success in school, and employment success. (4) Therapeutic interventions can fairly reliably increase hope scores, and with higher hope scores such interventions lead to positive life outcomes in relationships, education, and employment.
Snyder went so far as to propose that hope theory explains one of the conundrums of modern clinical psychology. Psychology is not a theoretically unified discipline. Freudians, Jungians, behaviorists, rational-emotive therapists, and so on; the list of contemporary schools of psychology is long. The various theories contradict each other; it’s not possible to affirm the central beliefs of each theory. And yet, there is empirical evidence that clinical therapy based on each of these theories works. Practitioners of each therapeutic modality can point to good evidence that their therapy improves the lives of patients. Snyder proposed that theoretical differences matter less than the fact that the patient has entered therapy (of whatever sort). By entering therapy, the patient has taken a step on a pathway that she thinks may lead to her goal. In practice, clinical therapy, of whatever sort, increases a patient’s hope as defined by hope theory.
Hope therapy aims to be intensely practical. Snyder’s followers urge that therapists adopt or invent therapeutic interventions that help patients believe that they can invent pathways to their goals and that they are motivated to use those pathways. By improving patients’ hope, therapists can reliably improve their lives.
Let’s take a step back from Snyder’s theory for a moment. It’s obvious, but needs to be said: the goals that clients aim at are things like gaining employment, winning a promotion, starting or improving a relationship, creating a work of art, or graduating from college. The goals are all mundane, this-worldly goals. Hope theory has little to say to someone whose goal is a better life in his next incarnation or someone who seeks God’s favor at the last judgment. Transcendent goals are simply off the radar. The hope theorist/therapist may be completely agnostic about such goals, except as desire for such goals limits or abets pursuit of mundane goals.
Further, in some cases the therapist may have to challenge a client to see that his goals are not realistic. Hopes for levitation powers are going to be frustrated. Winning the Nobel Prize or earning a billion dollars are so wildly improbable that aiming for them practically ensures frustration. The therapist can help the client adopt realistic goals: recognition by one’s peers or earning enough to retire comfortably.
Hope theory aims at the mundane, and it pushes for reasonableness. Its claims are fairly modest. Therapy based on the hope theory model can fairly reliably help people achieve more of their goals and feel happier.
From a philosophical point of view, hope theory fits well into the analysis of hope we saw in Simon Critchley; i.e. that hope = desire + probability judgment. Critchley’s advice says that we ought to abandon (almost) all hope; we ought to hope only for likely things. So long as we obey that rule, Critchley would have no objection to Snyder’s theory, which merely gives practical advice about how to hope.
Next week I will complicate the matter by introducing a philosopher who disagrees with Critchley.