Daily Archives: December 2, 2018

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 7 – Optimism and Hope

continued from a previous entry

    22. Attitudinal Optimism

One response to the failure of our intellectual analysis to demonstrate that life is or is becoming fully meaningful is to adopt, to the extent it’s possible, certain attitudes to help us live in the face of the unknown. Let’s consider two potentially helpful attitudes—optimism and hope.  

Optimism is a tendency to expect the best possible outcome. Optimists believe that things will improve, while pessimists believe that things will worsen. I wholeheartedly reject such optimism because I don’t expect good outcomes or have faith that the future will be better.

Optimism also refers, not to expectations about the future, but to an attitude that we have in the present. This kind of optimism sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty or looks on the bright side of life. Such optimism is generally beneficial—you tend to be happier seeing the glass half full. Thus I recommend this attitudinal optimism if it excludes expectations about the future which can easily lead to disappointment.

    23. Attitudinal Hope

Hope also need not refer to an expectation but to an attitude we have in the present; a kind of hope illuminated by contrasting it with its opposite—despair. When we despair, we no longer care; we give up because our actions don’t seem to matter. After all, why play a game we can’t win or fight for a better world if it’s impossible to bring one about?

So attitudinal hope entails caring, acting, and striving. To hope is to reject despair—to care although it might not matter; to act in the face of the unknown; and to not give up. I don’t know if my actions will improve my life or help bring about a meaningful cosmos, but I can choose to hope, care, act, and strive toward those goals nonetheless. Again, this hope isn’t about future expectations; it’s an attitude which informs my present while rejecting despair or resignation. Such hope is the wellspring for the cares and concerns which manifest themselves in action.

Moreover, if I despair I won’t enjoy my life as if I adopt a hopeful attitude. Thus there is also a pragmatic reason for adopting a hopeful attitude—it makes my life go better. The only caveat is that the objects of our hopes must be realistic—having false hopes usually makes our lives go worse. In sum, attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair, leads to caring and acting and makes my life better.

A key difference between optimism and hope is that optimists usually believe that a desirable outcome is probable or likely whereas hope is independent of probability assessments. I may hope for unlikely outcomes but it’s hard to be optimistic about them. Another difference is that despair is more debilitating than pessimism. So while recommending both attitudinal optimism and attitudinal hope, I regard hope as somewhat more fundamental.

      24. Wishful Hope

Yet hope is more than simply an attitude we adopt in the present; it also entails having certain desires, dreams, wants or wishes for the future. Again I reject such hopes if they include the idea of expectations, but I can have desires, dreams, wishes, or wants without expecting that they will be fulfilled. (I can wish or want to win the lottery without expecting to win.) Note this hopeful wishing is not faith since I don’t believe or have faith that my wishes will come true.

Like attitudinal hope, wishful hope rejects despair and spurs action. Hopes provide the impetus for acting, which in turn makes the fulfillment of what I hope for more likely. This connection between wishful hoping and action is straightforward. If I hope to become a physician and nothing prevents me from becoming one, then that desire may motivate me to act. In this sense, there is nothing intellectually objectionable or detrimental about wishful hoping—as long as there is a realistic possibility that such hopes can be fulfilled.

However, if the objects of our hopes are unachievable then hoping for them is futile—we set ourselves up for disappointment if we hope for the unattainable. Conversely, realistic hopes generally make our lives go better because they give us reason to live and to find meaning in the projects motivated by our hopes. I wholeheartedly recommend wishful hope.

to be continued next week …