During Barack Obama's
victory speech after winning the South Carolina primary last night, among the signs waving in the audience was one that read: "Got hope?" Hope has been a strong theme in the Obama campaign: "choosing hope over fear" and "the power of hope to imagine, and then work for, what had seemed impossible before." Obama's focus on hope as a catalyst for action is what first drew me to him as a candidate.
I've been thinking a lot about hope lately as a result of reading Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism
. One of the book's self-assessments allows you to determine your personal "hope score." Not too surprising to me, my own hope score was fairly high.
According to Dr. Seligman, no other single score is as important as your hope score in determining your level of achievement and happiness in life. Simply put, people with a high level of hopefulness believe that their actions can make a difference, and therefore, they act. But people who feel hopeless also feel helpless. Since they believe that nothing they do matters, they choose to do nothing.
Seligman has been studying hopefulness and helplessness in the laboratory since 1964, and what his experiments indicate is that both are learned behaviors. Whether the lab subjects are rats, dogs, or humans, if they experience too much powerlessness in a particular area, they become hopeless and stop trying. But the good news is that the reverse is also true. When people or animals believe that their actions do make a difference, they become more hopeful, and try even harder.
Seligman's experiments also suggest that hopelessness and helplessness coincide with severe depression. Hopeless, helpless people become depressed. Depressed people become hopeless and helpless. And again, the reverse is true. People who regain hope are no longer depressed. If Seligman is right (and he has many years of statistical studies
backing up his theories), hope is not only an antidote for depression, it's a vaccination that can prevent it from occurring.
The key to developing hope, according to Seligman, is changing your "explanatory style." Finding temporary and specific causes for adversity and disappointment is the art of hope; believing in permanent and universal causes is the practice of despair. His experiments
show that if you can learn to change the way you explain negative events and conditions, you can become more hopeful.
A hopeless person says, "my candidate never wins" (permanent), so he stays away from the polls. A hopeful person says, "my candidate lost the last election" (temporary), but campaigns for his candidate this time. A hopeless person tells herself, "the whole country is a mess" (universal), so she thinks there is nothing she can do to change it. A hopeful person tells herself, "our health care system is a mess" (specific), so she advocates for health care reform.
People become hopeful because they tell themselves they can make a difference
. And hopeful people take action. Hope is the stuff that positive change is made of.
In Obama's words: "...hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it."
How about you? Got hope?
Labels: social action