Last time I described a process for letting go of unproductive thoughts and habits in 2019. This time I want to discuss why it is also especially important to cultivate hope for the new year. But first a little about how psychology understands hope:
Since Freud, virtually all psychological theories have assumed that the causes of our emotional problems lie in the past – in our traumas, conditioning, and family conflicts. But has that focus been misplaced? Recent research highlights the importance for our well-being of something called “prospection,” which refers to the uniquely human capacity to predict what the future may hold, including all the possible disasters that might befall us. Prospection theory proposes that we develop depression or anxiety, not because we ruminate about the past, but because we have bleak expectations for the future. According to this theory, people become depressed when they believe that nothing can get better for them in the future; and they become anxious when they view the future as full of danger.
That’s why the ability to hope is important for everyone’s well-being. Most positive emotions arise when we feel safe and satisfied. But hope is unique in that we experience it most intensely when circumstances are most dire. Without the ability to hope, our thoughts about everything that might go wrong would overwhelm us and leave us completely immobilized. But our hope burns brightest in those moments when it most seems that all is lost.
That means that hope is a psychological asset and a coping strategy, not denial or wishful thinking. Wishing is a passive response that doesn’t motivate us to do anything, but hope is grounded in reality. It assesses current circumstances with a view to finding ways to improve them. It expands our perspective, strengthens our persistence, and guards against despair. It isn’t just a feeling; it also involves thinking and acting, which means that hope is, at least to some degree, something to which we can deliberately commit. One of the great examples of the power of this commitment was Martin Luther King, who was a leader for the ages in the struggle against racism in part because his commitment to hope was so unwavering. He understood that daring to hope for a better world is part of what brings it into being, and he counseled, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
As 2019 begins, the example of his hope is an important lesson for all of us. As a country, we are currently in what will surely be remembered as one of the darkest periods in American history. A minority – but a large minority – have become ensnared in a destructive populist/authoritarian movement which is rooted in fear, hatred, greed, and indifference to factual reality. I suppose the slogan of the Trump cult, “Make America Great Again,” was intended to inspire hope for a better future in his followers, and they seem to hear it that way. But those words refer to a counterfeit hope. They represent a backward-looking nostalgia for an idealized (and white) past that never actually existed in the first place.
Those of us who aren’t caught up in the trance of Trumpism may not need slogans to represent our hopes for the country, but for anyone who might want one, I think you could hardly do better this year than “Make America Kind Again,” where the meaning of ‘kind’ can also be understood to include words like ‘just,’ ‘generous,’ ‘compassionate,’ and ‘civil.’ Understood in that way, this slogan expresses an indispensable hope for our time: that, collectively, the better angels of our nature will ultimately prove more powerful in determining the country’s future than our fear and ugliness. Moreover, to identify with that slogan as a personal commitment is to challenge ourselves to live our individual lives from what is best in us. It may be that the most powerful example of hope we can offer each other in these times is to do all that we can to ensure that what is kind and gentle in us becomes our North Star. May we all be guided by infinite hope in 2019.