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Hope and despair exist on a spectrum — here's how to move toward hope

Hope is not as soft or as passive an emotion as we think. Here's how 'The Shawshank Redemption' can teach us the philosophy and function of hope as a response to possibility.

Andrew Chignell: When you start talking about hope some people think it’s immediately a kind of Pollyanna-ish thing. Like: “Oh, I should be hopeful,” or it’s kind of a greeting card sentiment. You go kind of doe-eyed and start thinking soft thoughts about how we should all be hopeful in one another. And, of course, there are some important things to be said in favor of those kinds of things, but we think of hope as also an extremely difficult and important and foundational sort of state that can be discussed in ways that aren’t so saccharine.

One of the interesting things that philosophers talk about with respect to hope is, of course, its rationality. So there’s a sense in which you can’t hope for everything. You can wish for lots of things for which you can’t hope. I can wish that the Bears won the Super Bowl last year, but I can’t hope that they won the Super Bowl last year because we know that they didn’t. And so it seems almost like you’re misusing the word to say, “I hope that they won last year.” Or, “I hope that the weather was different yesterday than it was.” So there’s a kind of semantic content that suggests that there are rationality constraints on hope which philosophers try to look at and analyze.

There’s a kind of orthodox account—people call it the orthodox account because most people share it—that says that hope involves at least desiring something and believing that it’s possible. So in this case you wouldn’t believe that the weather yesterday could be different than it was and so you wouldn’t believe that’s possible, and so you can’t really hope for it. So that’s that condition that’s constraining the rationality of hope. And then there’s this kind of debate about what further conditions might be required.

One thought experiment that people have discussed frequently is that of 'The Shawshank Redemption'. So this is a Stephen King short story that was turned into a film. You have two characters, Andy and Red. Both of them really desire something: to get out of prison. Both of them regard it as possible, it’s explicit in the story and in the film, but somehow one character, Andy, is hopeful and says he’s hopeful and that he’s acting in such a way as to make it come about even if he thinks it’s extremely unlikely. And the other character, Red, says he can’t allow himself to hope. The fear of disappointment is too great and will crush him. So they both meet those conditions. It’s something they really desire and it’s something they believe to be possible, and yet one hopes and the other despairs.

So cases like this make people think we need some other kind of condition to really explain the difference between hope and despair. And that’s where some of the debate is at the moment, trying to find this elusive third condition. And different people have different things they want to add to the orthodox conception. My own favored approach, which I’m in the middle of writing up, is what I call the focus or attention account of hope. So it basically says something like the difference between hope and despair is the extent to which you’re focusing on the very slim odds of the thing coming about or whether you’re focusing on the fact that it’s possible—or that you take it to be possible.

So if you’re focused on the thing as a possibility, under the aspect of its possibility, if you want, then you’re hoping for it. If you’re focusing on the fact that it’s incredibly unlikely and the odds are such long-shot odds then you’re despairing of it. So you can desire it in the same way. You can believe that it’s possible in the same way. And it’s this focus that really makes the difference between hope and despair. It might even be a kind of spectrum thing where you can move back and forth. The focus might be under your control sometimes, other times given the circumstances or the strength and the desire it might not always be under your control.
So I also kind of talk a little bit about the way a certain kind of mindfulness training could lead us to be more hopeful people, cultivating the virtue of hope by learning how to focus on something under the aspect of its possibility rather than allowing our focus or attention to always drift towards the fact that it’s so unlikely.

You can even hear this in the way that someone might say something about what they hope for or despair of. So in the Andy and Red case, Andy might say, “I know that it’s really unlikely but at least it’s possible,” and sort of focus on the possibility. That’s the hopeful sort of approach. And Red might say, “I know that it’s possible, but it’s really unlikely.”
Same desire, same estimation of the probabilities but you can even hear in the way it’s stated a kind of difference in attitude that I take to be the essential difference between hope and despair.
So one more locus of discussion is the relationship between hope, optimism, and action. I think a lot of people regard hope in a way as unserious because it gets detached from action in a certain way. So hope is something that you do when you can’t do anything else. It’s the kind of curse that is left in Pandora’s box, because you still have it even though there’s nothing else you can do with respect to achieving the goal in question. “I’m just hoping for it. It seems possible but there’s not much I can do. I’m just sort of passively hoping.”

That obviously seems like a bit of a character of the way in which hope might actually work. And so we’re curious, and people in both psychology and sociology, other social sciences as well as philosophers and religious studies people, in our project, think about the way in which hope underwrites action, hope manifests itself in action, hope is the result of action. So agency and hope is a really interesting set of issues that we think is underdeveloped.

Hope's reputation is so good, it's bad. People hear the word and dismiss it as Hallmark, doe-eyed, emotional fluff. But hoping is not the same as dreaming or wishing: it is constrained by rationality, and unlike fantasy the possibility has to exist, even if the odds are slim. As Professor Andrew Chignell explains: you can wish the weather had been nicer yesterday, but you can't hope it. Hope is a spectrum of how you react to possibility, and it runs all the way to despair. Here, Chignell explains his latest research in philosophy, mindfulness, and uses The Shawshank Redemption to illustrate how closely hope and despair are related. This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which has supported interdisciplinary academic research into under-explored aspects of hope and optimism. Discover more at hopeoptimism.com.

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