Hopelessness Doesn’t Have to Preclude Action

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Let’s start with the obvious — 2016 has felt like a uniquely awful year. To review: Donald Trump. The mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. The 2-year-old killed by an alligator. Brexit. And within these first few days of July, there has been — one right after another — the killing of Alton Sherling, and then Philando Castile, and then the sniper attack in Dallas. Following the news is exhausting; ignoring it feels even worse. For so many people, hopelessness is the overwhelming emotion of the day.

And that’s okay — as Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks notes in a powerful column today, it’s essential, even. “Surrender to the nagging instinct to feel hopeless about the level of anger and violence in the country, and the number of guns in our midst that allow one man to instantly cause the death of others — numerous others, or one at a time,” he writes. But here’s the thing: The feeling of hopelessness doesn’t excuse you from taking action. And here’s the second thing: Taking action is probably the surest way out of the despair.

First, a definition of hope. Colloquially, we understand it as something similar to, and about as useful as, wishful thinking. But the scientists who study the emotion (because there are indeed scientists who study something as seemingly squishy as hope) define it a little differently. As they see it, hope is action; it’s the same thing as having a plan. “People who are hopeful don’t just have a goal or wish, they have a strategy to achieve it and the motivation to implement their plan,” Elizabeth Bernstein explained in a Wall Street Journal article in March. (Importantly, she adds that it’s different from optimism, “which is the belief that things will work out no matter what you do.”) The study of hope as a scientific construct is still quite small, but so far, researchers have found some hints of the benefits attached to the feeling, perhaps especially for students, as a 2012 column in Inside Higher Ed pointed out:

In one study at a Midwestern state university, hopeful students graduated at rates 16 percent higher than non-hopeful students. Another, at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, found that the presence of hope in first-semester law students there better predicted academic success than did ACT or LSAT scores. One study found that high-hope people experience less anxiety in general and in specific relation to test-taking situations. A longitudinal study of more than 100 students at two British universities found that hope was a better predictor of academic success than intelligence, personality or previous scholarly achievement.

On the other hand, the causation here is not exactly clear; perhaps this works the other way around, and the students’ lack of anxiety caused them to feel more hopeful, for example. But, anyway, the more important point may be one that psychology writer Oliver Burkeman gets at in his latest Guardian column: It’s possible to feel hopeless — and to take action, anyway. “Don’t kid yourself that you will single-handedly eradicate nationwide or global problems; instead, define and pursue small-scale goals, like joining a campaign with some connection to the issues that trouble you the most,” Burkeman writes. (Here, for example, is one small idea, laid out in simple terms earlier today on Twitter.) “Paradoxically, it’s through taking action, despite not feeling happy about the situation, that a deeper kind of happiness can arise.” You don’t have to wait for motivation, in other words, and the feeling of despair doesn’t have to go away before you resolve to act.