In times of uncertainty, we often turn to the news media, leaders, and experts for answers. Conflicting reports weaken our trust, creating more uncertainty. As more bad news continues to stream in, we turn away.
To distract ourselves from intrusive ruminations, nagging guilt, loss, and trauma, we seek relief. Many of us use distraction techniques: we focus our attention for two minutes on a pleasant memory, image, or even a focus on our breath.
However, some of our distraction behaviors do more harm than good. Often impulsive (and sometimes compulsive) we develop binging behaviors to numb us from our thoughts and feelings. Such behaviors include activities like binge-watching series, compulsive-eating/drinking, or worse. These behaviors further separate us from others, and any real sense of hope.
Instead, we need to ease our emotional pain and prevent the problem from becoming worse. We need to cultivate realistic hope.
Realistic hope is not based on the perspective that everything was, is, or will be fine. To the contrary, hope is about a breadth of perspective with real, specific possibilities that call us to action.
In Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books, 2020), Rebecca Solnit writes: “Hope is not a sunny, everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”
Unrealistic optimism, or false hope, is not based on critical thinking. To be sure, there are benefits of being optimistic, but optimism without any real basis or plan to support it is a hollow promise; it is not the same as realistic hope. False hope is not clearly linked to realistic planning for the future.
Hopeful people understand that what they do matters, even if they do not know how it will matter, or for whom. In times of uncertainty, they embrace the unknown and the space it creates to shape the outcome, individually and collectively. Hopeful people recognize uncertainty, think of new pathways around obstacles, and take action.
Recognize Your Loss, and Arrest Despair
In a time of social-distancing, physical-distancing, isolation, and quarantine, we are at greater risk of loneliness, which has serious implications.
We are wired with a fundamental need to connect with and feel accepted by others. This can explain why some of us are willing to risk the suggested guidelines, rules, and even laws regarding “stay-at-home.” When social-distancing interrupts this need from being met (because of lack of opportunities to maintain or create supportive relationships), it can have a powerful and detrimental effect on our physical and psychological health: loneliness, loss, and despair.
Researchers Louise C. Hawkley, PhD and John T. Cacioppos, PhD, describe loneliness as a distressing feeling equivalent to physical pain. Their study, published in 2010, found that left untended, loneliness has serious consequences for cognition, emotion, behavior, and physical health. Loneliness can even shorten our life expectancy.
In psychology, despair is the feeling of hopelessness: that things are profoundly wrong and will not change for the better. Despair is one of the most negative and destructive of human affects. During difficult times, despair is common.
Typically, despair dissipates over time as a crisis is resolved. But when a crisis goes on for an extended period of time and despair doesn’t dissipate, it becomes chronic: it impairs our functioning and quality of life. When such despair is profound—when we feel existentially helpless, powerless, and pessimistic about the future—we may be experiencing clinical despair: we feel hopeless about life and the future.
Viktor Frankl, an existential psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, described despair as meaningless suffering, and created a simple formula to identify it: despair equals suffering without meaning: D=S-M. Finding meaning can arrest despair.
For example, recognizing self-defeating behavior and taking steps to correct the behavior can create meaning. Similarly, when clinical despair stems from undiagnosed clinical depression or bipolar disorder, the meaning (or reason) for suffering is identified. Of course, in either example, when despair persists despite treatment, additional support is required.
As C.G. Jung once said, “We cannot change anything unless we accept it.”
If we are ignoring, or denying our loneliness, sadness, anxiety, or despair, we are cutting off our true selves, and drifting toward clinical despair and depression. Instead, we must recognize feelings and loss: our circumstances, thoughts, and feelings. This often requires great courage. And you don’t have to do it alone. A qualified coach, social worker, therapist, or doctor can help, and many are now available for video or virtual sessions.
Clinging to false hope, which may serve the valuable purpose of survival for a period of time, ultimately prevents moving past the despair of trauma. Instead, cultivate realistic hope.
How to Cultivate Realistic Hope
In these difficult times, it’s no easy task to balance the reality of the fear, anxiety, and suffering that is occurring, and simultaneously cultivate realistic hope. How do they stay so grounded?
Authors Angela Wilkinson, PhD, and Betty Sue Flowers, PhD write in Realistic Hope: Facing Global Challenges (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) that hope is possible because of our evolved, functioning brain (the frontal cortex communicating with the sub-cortical regions), a perspective or belief about possibility (a space for potential fundamental change and social progress) and a focus on the benefit to public and private good.
As C.R. Snyder writes in The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get There from Here (FreePress 2010), “Hope is the sum of the mental willpower and waypower that you have for your goals.”
Willpower: In this sense, your willpower is your driving force; it is your mental energy that will propel you toward your goal. It is your determination and commitment: your grit. Often times, your willpower is the story you tell yourself, about yourself: your self-talk. A strong willpower sounds like, “I can,” or “I got this,” or even, “let’s try this.” People with a strong willpower are willful: they focus on what they will do, rather than what they won’t do.
To maintain your willpower, pay attention to your self-care. Establish and maintain new routines that foster positive energy and cultivate realistic hope.
Waypower: Your waypower is the course you will take; it is your mental capacity that you will use to reach your goal. Your waypower allows you to adapt and adjust as necessary; in essence, it is your perception of your ability to create thoughtful, flexible, and realistic plans.
If you want to cultivate realistic hope, you need an objective framework of the problem. Expert opinions are critical: unbiased and relevant, in breadth as well as depth. Empathy and dialog are key to gain perspective.
Second, you need to vision alternative futures, or scenarios, to develop a vision for the future, or goals. Accurate data, analysis, and modeling over time make it realistic.
Goals: Your goals are the outcome that you imagine. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve, and how long it will take, keeps you motivated. Establish smart goals and contingency plans (if/then planning) to maintain momentum.
Act With Realistic Hope
We are in the midst of a grand transition, facing problems without borders and governments without solutions. But, the good news is that there are efforts underway that offer realistic hope: solutions can be found. In many cases, those involved in finding solutions are international entities, ad hoc groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals. These individuals cultivate realistic hope.
Hopeful people recognize the challenges, their purpose, and a time horizon. They commit to act and complete the process, over and over again. As our knowledge expands, as new stakeholders emerge, and as mind-sets change, the framing of the problems will also change, and relevant scenarios will need modification. Together, we can do this.