“Keep hope alive” is a slogan which was popularised by the American civil rights campaigner, Jesse Jackson, in a speech given 25 years ago. Since then, the electronica group, The Crystal Method, used it as the basis for a single on their album Vegas.

In short, the phrase connects with how we struggle to cope with the difficult times in life. Studying and teaching human psychology, and working across the Church, has taught me, through studies and observations, that hope helps us to cope. After all, a life without hope could lead us to sink deeply into depression. However, while hope can help to keep us going, false hope can keep people locked in situations they should get out of, such as an emotionally draining job or damaging personal relationship.

The first step to using hope as a coping mechanism though is to ask what actually is ‘hope’? There’s a lot of confusion surrounding what hope is, with many mistaking optimism for hope, yet the two are very different. The distinction is set out brilliantly by the British intellectual, Terry Eagleton, in his recent book, Hope Without Optimism, which sets pit the connection very clearly through a wealth of colourful examples.

Optimism is built around expecting things to go well. It often takes a positive view of how things are now, and simply expects things to go on being good. Sometimes optimism is built on faith in the human capacity to solve problems and make things better, or at least that is how it is portrayed by Matt Ridley in his book, The Rational Optimist.

But hope is very different. It is crucual to remember that hope comes into its own when there is no basis for optimism, no reason at all for believing that things are going to end well. Victor Frankl has told the story of how he kept hope alive in a Nazi concentration camp, when there was no reason for thinking he would get out alive. In a similar way, we can keep hope alive even in the wake of a fatal illness affecting us or those we are closet to. Hope is more a matter of determination and of maintaining a positive attitude, than it is about expecting things to go well

There has been quite a bit of interest in ‘hopelessness’ as a feature of depression. The hopelessness theory of depression, put forward by Lyn Abramson, says that hopelessness is that final point in the sequence that tips people over into depression. But what does she mean by hopelessness? When you look at what people mean by hopelessness , and how they measure it, I am not sure it is really about hope at all. It is a more a matter of just believing things are going to turn out well, and believing in your own capacity to make that happen.

Optimism plays a useful role in our general outlook on the world, and I believe it contributes to good mental health. The trouble is that, if you are in circumstances where optimism is no longer possible, hope collapses entirely. The kind of basic, general hope that is not dependent on optimism is much more resilient in hard times, and may actually do more to maintain good mental health.

We need more work and richer research on how to maintain this fundamental hope that is not tied to optimism. I think a key move is to broaden our idea of what would count as ‘a good future’. The broader your idea is of that, the easier it is to maintain and use hope as a tool to cope and guide you through tough times.

Author's Bio: 

Fraser Watts is a visiting Professor of Psychology and Religion at the University of Lincoln, UK, and Guest Lecturer at Durham University’s Department of Theology & Religion.
Over a career spanning several decades across the Church and academia, Fraser began teaching in 1995 as Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Science in the University of Cambridge, and becoming a Reader in Theology and Science. Fraser was Director of the Psychology and Religion Research Group in the Faculty of Divinity, Chairman of the Faculty of Divinity, Director of the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies, and a Fellow of Queens’ College.
Outside of universities, Fraser Watts served as President of the International Society for Science and Religion and remains active in the organisation as its Executive Secretary. Fraser founded the Cambridge Institute for Applied Psychology and Religion, where he holds the position of director. Fraser is a Priest in the Church of England and, until retirement, was Vicar-Chaplain of St Edward’s Church in Cambridge, UK.